Column: ‘Dark money’ is smashing our system of political openness. How one state is fighting back — and winning


There are reasons that “dark money” came to be called “dark.” One is that since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling called Citizens United, hundreds of millions of dollars, from sources almost completely obscured from view, have flooded the political zone. And “dark,” too, can mean the sinister nature of some political attack ads and mailers that can revile candidates behind the obscurity of a bland name from a made-up organization, or the anonymity of a post office box.

In January 2010, six days after the Supreme Court issued its decision, President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, warned about its consequences to American politics. The scenario got a lot darker late last month, when President Trump’s treasury secretary and the Internal Revenue Service said that some politically active tax-exempt groups, like the National Rifle Assn., won’t have to list the names of people who donate to their political efforts — no matter who, no matter how much — because of a fear of government intimidation.

But this secrecy flies in the face of what the Supreme Court also said in Citizens United: “Transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

Which brings us to Montana, to its native daughter, filmmaker Kimberly Reed, and to her new documentary, “Dark Money.” Montana is a pretty conservative state, and a pretty independent one, and Reed spent six years tracking the stories of how dark money was smashing a system of political openness and accountability that Montanans had spent a century building — and how they are fighting back in a fashion that other states might emulate.

We think of the complexities of campaign finance as an issue of Washington, an issue of the beltway. But your story is set in Montana. Why is that?

It made a really good case study. I think that most of the time when you talk about campaign finance, the stories tend to get a little complicated, right? And when you try to talk about anonymous money in politics, which is what our film is about, the people who are spending money, that are intentionally trying to keep the money anonymous — it can be a complicated story to tell, and it felt like if we could just use one microcosm to talk about all of these issues, that would be the way to do it.

It was very important to me to tell a story about human beings and not about bar graphs and stuff, and to really show the impact that this secret money in politics, the impact that that has on the day-to-day lives of everyday citizens.

And it turned out that my home state, Montana, was the best case study that I could have found.

What was the hook that got you interested in dark money in the first place?

The first seed was when I heard about the Citizens United decision, and that didn't make a lot of sense to me. I had a lot of questions about that. The real hook, I would say, was in 2012, when — because I was paying attention to the politics in my home state — I realized that Montana had a court case that was looking like it was going to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, and had the ability to overturn or at least challenge Citizens United.

It seemed like a really good way to tell that abstract story about money and politics, but to make it about real people again.

I knew there was going to be a really deep tradition of grassroots opposition to money in politics, especially corporate control of the political system in Montana.

Montana had a very deep history of both being run by companies — copper companies, mining companies — and then a pushback that said, we don't want these corporations dictating how the state is run. So Montana set up very strict, very clear laws about clean politics, about campaign money. And that's where they butted heads with Citizens United.

Montana — there's not a lot of people who live there, and there's tons of natural resources. So that formulation usually means that rich guys at the time would come out and develop the natural resources in one way or another. One of the big places that happened was in Butte, Mont. — “the richest hill on earth,” as it was known in the early 1900s.

It was one of the best copper mines in the world, and they took millions and millions out of that hill, didn't give a lot back to the local community, except for a bunch of environmental disasters that had to be cleaned up later.

On top of that there was such rampant corruption, politicians being bought off. We're talking about copper kings; one in particular, named William A. Clark, bribing the legislators on the floor of the Montana Capitol building, having his henchmen hand out envelopes containing $10,000 to have these legislators vote for William A. Clark to go be Montana's first U.S. senator. They owned the politicians, they owned the newspapers. And that rampant corruption was unacceptable to a lot of Montanans. So they passed the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which banned corporate contributions to political campaigns.

And then Citizens United came along, and Montana, which wanted to defend its own standards, its own rules, even though Citizens United was essentially a free-for-all. Yet Montana is a state where you have a lot of Republicans in elected office. And what you show in the film is how this pitted Republicans against Republicans. There were secret campaigns against people who'd been in office a long time, who were known, who were admired, even loved figures in Montana politics.

We first saw this dark money cropping up in Montana in primary races where Republicans were attacking other Republicans. Republicans from the far right were attacking other Republicans — I hesitate to call them centrist or moderate, because they're not; these are really solid rock-ribbed Republicans. But they were being attacked and knocked out of office by who knows who? At the time we didn't know, when it first started getting piloted in 2008.

In 2010, the Supreme Court took the lid off of that with Citizens United and made the ability to spend money in those elections unlimited. What we [then] saw was one nonprofit corporation that was running a whole sweep of elections. Ultimately they worked with 14 candidates in one primary election.

In 2008 it was known as Western Tradition Partnership.

And they all have names like that. They also are cobbled together to sound good, but they don't really identify anything?

Exactly. That's the only thing you know about them, is that they have a patriotic-sounding name, and you may know the post office box that they're registered in, probably in Virginia or Washington, D.C.

The campaign mailers as described in the film were kind of vicious. There was one that came from a “mothers group” that tried to tie an old-line Montana figure to a mass murderer in Chicago. Talk about some of those mailers and what they accomplished.

There was one mailer that showed up attacking a conservative Republican, comparing him to [child murderer] John Wayne Gacy. The group that bought those postcards, and those letters and ads on radio, was called Mothers Against Child Predators. Who’s going to be against mothers? You can’t learn anything about who's behind the group.

If you send out a postcard like that, a couple of days before a primary election, you're not going to have any idea where it's coming from, who's behind it, and you're probably not going to be able to respond at all.

And yet Montana decided to fight back against this.

When it first happened, there was definitely a shock to the system. So we follow this trend over three election cycles and you saw dark money groups, these social welfare nonprofit groups, continue to be more and more weaponized, and done more and more professionally each election cycle.

Initially I think that they were pretty effective. But some of these historical aspects that we're talking about have made Montanans, in general, pretty wary of corporate money, especially anonymous money in our elections. People started to really pay attention to this issue and to ask questions about where it's coming from and to demand answers.

Montana was one of the first states, in 2012, to pass a statewide ballot initiative instructing its statewide elected officials — we have two senators and one representative — to go back to Washington, D.C., and do what they could to repeal Citizens United.

So even in 2012, you started to see this pushback. I always like to emphasize these, the solutions that are happening in Montana, because I think at the end of the day, it's a really hopeful story.

There's a lot of very disturbing stuff going on here, with secret influences taking over elections when people aren't paying attention. And that can be kind of depressing.

But I don't want people to be depressed. I want people to be motivated to pay attention.

Montana voters got to the bottom of it and ultimately passed some of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country because folks were paying attention.

There are two figures that you follow very closely. One of them is the attorney general who became the governor, Steve Bullock, and an investigative reporter who ended up having to live in his truck to pursue this story. These characters helped to carry the story and the legal case along.

Our film has a lot of everyday heroes. There's these state legislators who during the day they're farmers and bankers and lawyers and teachers. And then we have some regulators, people who are just enforcing the campaign finance laws, who are real heroes.

The whole story kind of unfurls through the eyes of this investigative reporter named John S. Adams. Following John was really crucial for us to tell the story. And Steve Bullock ultimately becomes the governor of the state as a Democrat working with a group of Republicans who got their heads together and passed some reforms.

The state Legislature realized that the best disinfectant, as it is often said, is sunlight: If we can just see where this money is coming from, that's going to go a long way to cleaning up Montana elections.

What we follow in our film are solutions that take place on this, on the state level. And I think that that's where progress on this front is going to happen.

It’s also something that is enshrined, believe it or not, in Citizens United itself. There’s an accompanying decision saying that the only reason [the court] can find the way that we're finding in Citizens United, and opening the floodgates to money, is because we are all assuming that we're going to know where that money is coming from.

And Antonin Scalia was particularly vociferous about the idea of opening this to scrutiny.

He’s got a famous quote I'm going to paraphrase, something to the effect that having elections where people are afraid to stand up and take credit for speaking in our democracy — he said that does not strike me as the home of the brave.

The one thing we really have is disclosure, so we can tell where this money is coming from. Because as soon as you shine a spotlight on it and you see where it came from, then the educated voter can determine what their motives are.

With documentaries that involve politics or social policy, the risk is always that you have a film that preaches to the choir. Were you concerned about that when you started making this?

I’m always concerned about that. As a documentary filmmaker, I think it's much more important to ask questions than to come at people with a bunch of answers. And as a person, I think that's generally a good approach, to have an open, skeptical mind that's looking at all sides of an issue. And that was certainly the case with what was going on here.

Is what Montana did a template?

I really think it is a playbook. And I think it's a good example for pretty much every other state to follow. There’s always going to be money in politics, right? There always has been, always will be.

What we can do is make sure that we know where it's coming from, so we can weed out what people's motives are, and especially whether or not they have a profit motive, because that's often there.

Patt Morrison’s new book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American newspaper.”

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