Sen. Billig's "dark money" bill would root out secret big money donors in WA elections

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With Democrats holding majorities in Olympia, Washington state Sen. Andy Billig has a much better chance of passing campaign finance transparency legislation.
  • With Democrats holding majorities in Olympia, Washington state Sen. Andy Billig has a much better chance of passing campaign finance transparency legislation.

For all the extensive, complicated disclosure requirements put on campaigns in Washington state, there's a gaping hole allowing major donors to hide from the public: dark money.

Like $1 million worth.

Let's say, for example, you're an organization that would benefit financially from looser charter school regulations in Washington state. But since you often work with teachers unions in traditional public schools, which oppose charters, you don't want to give away the game by publicly donating to the pro-charter Stand for Children Washington political action committee.

Simple. You give a hefty sum anonymously to the Stand for Children, Inc nonprofit. And then they write a million dollar check to their PAC.

Indeed, this year, the Stand for Children PAC got $1 million from the Stand for Children, Inc nonprofit — and we don't know exactly where it came from.

While the PAC has to disclose its top donors, their nonprofit doesn't. All journalists see is the $1 million Stand for Children donation, not who gave to the nonprofit.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Andy Billig is filing a bill for the state legislature to consider when the session starts in January. Under his proposed legislation, nonprofits and other similar organizations that spend more than $10,000 on an election would have to disclose their top 10 donors who gave them $10,000 or more, along with every donor that gives $100,000 or more.

"We have at least 25 co-sponsors, including at least two Republicans," Billig says.

And now that Democrats control the Senate, and Billig is the deputy majority leader, he should have a much easier road in getting his campaign finance legislation off the ground than he has in the past.

Organizations on both sides of the political aisle use dark money, Billig points out. By far the biggest donation that the progressive FUSE Votes PAC got was $50,000 from Fuse Washington nonprofit that does not disclose its donors.

The FUSE Votes PAC then donated $800 dollars each to "Friends of Candace Mumm," "People to elect Breean Beggs" and "People for Kate Burke," among other groups. (All three candidates, including Burke, Billig's campaign aide, won.)

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has been trying to tackle the issue of dark money as well, with a slew of campaign finance reforms that the council will be considering this month.

Stuckart and Billig say they object to use of "dark money" — no matter who spends it.

"They're all nasty," Stuckart says in a text message today, referring to the dark donors.

Stuckart initially said that if Billig's statewide bill passes the legislature, he would repeal the section of the proposed city rule dealing with dark money to avoid conflicts. He says Spokane passing the bill would make things easier for Billig to pass his bill.

However, he later clarified that if the city had more restrictive campaign finance in place, the city would keep its tougher rules in place.

In a Facebook post today, meanwhile, Stuckart took aim at the generally conservative-leaning PAC, Better Spokane, which was by far the biggest independent player in this year's city of Spokane elections.

Of the $121,000 the Better Spokane PAC raised, $20,000 worth of office-space and staff salaries was paid for with so-called "dark money" from the Better Spokane nonprofit.

And while Better Spokane's executive director Michael Cathcart voluntarily says that donations from Better Spokane board members Fritz Wolff, Ryan Gee, and Michael Senske make up nearly two-thirds of the money Better Spokane has raised, Cathcart has declined to name the other donors.

Cathcart says he doesn't have permission to give out some donors' names.

Stuckart objected in particular to Better Spokane spending $30,000 with Cambridge Analytica, an international microtargeting firm that has recently become tangled in the sprawling Trump-Russia scandal.

"Yep," Stuckart wrote on Facebook. "The same company that allegedly colluded with the Russians was ‘colluding’ with a local PAC called Better Spokane to attack progressive council candidates."
In a text message, Stuckart said his objection wasn't with the use of microtargeting (Obama used the strategy to great success) so much as a firm tied to figures like former NSA director Michael Flynn and former White House chief political strategist Steve Bannon.

"Just opposed to firms that hire felons and racists," Stuckart says in a text.

Cathcart scoffs at Stuckart's tying his campaign to the Russia scandal.

"I think Ben is just trying to muster up more base support," Cathcart says. "It’s red meat for his base. Our organization has nothing to do with Steve Bannon or Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin."

Instead, Cathcart says, he chose Cambridge Analytica because, well, they've been successful.

"They’ve shown that they could win," Cathcart says. "They did a very good job in 2016. Why wouldn’t you try to hire folks with a proven track record? That’s what it comes down to ... This idea that it’s bad because they help the president of the United States win is a sensational argument."

Either way, Stuckart notes his ordinance would require the Better Spokane PAC to be more transparent about where it gets its money.

"Under an ordinance I have filed for December 18th, secret donors who buy these services that target our citizens will no longer be secret," Stuckart writes on Facebook. "These donors will be disclosed or their organization will face a fine for every day they are not in compliance."

Cathcart, however, argues that these sorts of transparency regulations are more appropriate for the state level, where they're easier to enforce. He calls for a "broader conversation" around the topic of campaign finance.

He also says that these sorts of regulations can create impediments for some nonprofits. Some donors may feel willing to donate to support a nonprofit's non-political work, but not want to be associated with the nonprofit's political mission. 

But Billig doesn't see that as a problem. Say Better Spokane wanted to rent office space for a political campaign. It just has to pay their rent using fully disclosed funds from their political PAC, instead of funds from their non-political nonprofit funds.

"That money would come from donors who are disclosed, rather than donors who are hidden in the dark," Billig says.