- - Friday, March 14, 2014

Following the last midterm election, Wisconsin witnessed extraordinary political upheaval and 14 recall elections. With this, an astounding amount of money surged in from out of state, much of it secret and undisclosed.

In our current legal landscape, independent groups can spend as much as they want to support or oppose candidates, but are supposed to come clean about their funders.

This not only helps voters assess the messages they are getting, but more importantly, helps the public and the press track and deter corruption.

How can we know if politicians are giving favorable treatment to the special interests that spent six or seven figures helping them get elected, if we don’t know who those special interests are?

Campaign-finance disclosure has been repeatedly endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court (even among a majority of Republican appointees in Citizens United). Transparency enjoys broad support across the political spectrum.

This policy is enshrined in Wisconsin law, which declares that the goal of the state’s campaign-finance law is to “make readily available to the voters complete information as to who is supporting or opposing which candidate or cause and to what extent, whether directly or indirectly.”

Yet with many groups’ spending in the recall elections making a mockery of these principles, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) carved out a niche trying to follow the money.

The vast majority of money from both sides came from out-of-state; however, liberal donors primarily gave to regulated PACs and disclosed their contributors, whereas conservatives funneled tens of millions through nonprofits that refused to report their donors.

Digging into the dark money, we uncovered, for example, that the “Coalition for American Values,” which ran ads purporting to reflect Wisconsin values, was actually entirely funded by an out-of-state group, a fact not discovered until a year after the election.

In other words, voters on Election Day never knew that a group telling Wisconsinites about the “Wisconsin way” was bankrolled by out-of-state billionaires.

Amid recent reports of a new “John Doe” criminal investigation into possible campaign-finance violations during the recall elections, we dug deeper.

Our research uncovered that one group under investigation, Wisconsin Club for Growth, not only spent $9.1 million on Wisconsin elections without reporting a penny, it also took in millions of dollars from out-of-state donors, and in turn, shuffled millions to other organizations that spent money on ads in 2011 and 2012, all while keeping Wisconsin voters in the dark about the true source of the funds.

Wisconsin Club for Growth is now arguing in court that it has no responsibility to tell the public who is backing them — and can even coordinate with candidates while they do it.

These assertions, if upheld, would undermine what remains of Wisconsin’s candidate contribution and disclosure limits, and in the end, the public’s right to know about some of the biggest spenders in an election.

If a candidate is working hand-in-glove with a nonprofit such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a secret, multimillion-dollar donation to the nonprofit would be effectively the same as a donation to a candidate — with the same opportunity for corruption and the same problems with the public not knowing about it.

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