Commentary

Hidden persuader

The New York TimesOctober 30, 2012 

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The New York Times:

In 2010, a group now called American Tradition Partnership brought a lawsuit against Montana, seeking to throw out the state’s anti-corruption law. It argued that the law, which barred corporate spending on candidates’ campaigns, was unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. In June, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority obliged and handed the group a big victory by blocking the state law.

Now a report by ProPublica shows that this group, which supports development of natural resources, apparently misled the Internal Revenue Service when it applied for and received tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group. It said it would not try to influence elections for public office, yet it has done so repeatedly.

A Montana agency that monitors campaign practices found that the group’s purpose is “to directly influence candidate elections through surreptitious means.” It hides its donors and, as the Center for Public Integrity reported, shields the identities of those carrying out its attacks on candidates who favor alternative sources of energy. As the state agency said, all this deception “raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process.”

The conservative justices waved away the well-documented record of political corruption in Montana that gave rise to its law. Instead, they reaffirmed the baseless theory that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Any review of history would lead to a different conclusion.

As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent in June, “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”

The Citizens United opinion suggested that disclosure of political contributions prevented corruption. But American Tradition Partnership is suing to strike down Montana’s disclosure law. Without overturning the disclosure requirement, the group’s secret spending shows how easy it is to hide donors and corrupt the political process.

The New York Times

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