dark money

Michigan Judicial Races Draw $14 Million in Dark Money

going, going, goneRich Robinson, of the watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network, is reporting that in the 2012 election, Michigan judicial races were by and large bought and paid for by shadowy third party issue ads. Robinson finds that “Just 25% of $18.6M spent was reported to the State”. That’s $14 million in dark money. His concern is that, not only are these judicial seats for sale, but we don’t know who’s buying them, and therefore won’t be able to detect bias or need for recusal.

While the bulk of the money was spent on the Supreme Court contest, this time around a fight for the 6th Circuit Court, where in addition to the $725,000 reported by the candidates, $2 million was spent by Washington D.C. players.

As reported last year in Democracy Tree, Supreme Court contests produce more issue ads than other political races in Michigan because judicial candidates are bound to an entirely different set of rules which hobble their ability to personally sling the mud, so they count on third parties to do all their dirty work.  These races have a history of being a hotbed for outright absurdities and improprieties in campaign issue ads.

Incumbent or not, a Supreme Court candidate is bound by specific campaign rules found in the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct. In that code we find Canon 7 B (1) (d) – which states:

“A candidate, including an incumbent judge, for judicial office:  should not knowingly, or with reckless disregard, use or participate in the use of any form of public communication that is false.”

This is significant — all other political candidates are surprisingly not generally bound to be truthful in advertising, although television and radio stations are legally responsible for the veracity  of all issue ads, they exercise no control over candidate ad content.

Judicial candidates are not permitted to personally lie, so someone else must do it for them.

Michigan Supremes are first nominated by their respective parties, but thereafter pretend to be completely nonpartisan, as required by law. It’s a sham that grows more and more comical with each election cycle.  Michigan high court races rank 6th in the nation in campiagn expenditures, and that’s before the Citizens United ruling.  The numbers get worse — Michigan ranks 3rd in Supreme Court race television ad spending, again, before corporate personhood.

These races are getting uglier by the year.  In 2008, Chief Justice Taylor (R) was defeated thanks to a 3rd party issue ad campaign waged by Michigan Democrats. Taylor was a member of the notorious “Engler-4”, a conservative majority that had an abominable voting record, so there was plenty of damning, yet truthful, material for them to draw from. But the Dems ignored that. Instead they ran a T.V. spot depicting him as sleeping at the bench. But the ad actually showed an actor sleeping, leaving the viewer to believe it was Taylor himself.  The ad did its job, Taylor was defeated in large part due to the memorable moniker it created in voter’s minds: “Sleeping Judge Taylor.” This ad was not only misleading, but it didn’t even address a real “issue”.

Issue ads and candidate ads are nearly impossible to differentiate if not for the “paid for” requirement. The U.S. Supreme Court attempted to define their individual properties in a 1976 ruling, Buckley v. Valeo. The opinion said that issue ads are not permitted to urge viewers to vote a particular way with language such as “vote for” or “vote against”, whereas candidate ads could use those phrases. Perhaps those rules made sense 36 years ago, but honestly, we rarely hear simplistic content like that in our current television fare.

The only real difference between issue and candidate ads is what we don’t know about who is behind the organizations running those issue ads. Specifically, who’s money is buying the ads. Voter ignorance of this is no indication that the beneficiary candidate is unaware of who their corporate sugar-daddies are. In fact, it would be naive to think they don’t know.

With 63% of Michigan voters believing that campaign money influences judicial decision making, it seems voters are not naive after all. The National Institute on Money in State Politics reports in The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, that 86% of cases before the Michigan Supreme Court can you CONTRIBUTE anything to help your caseinvolved one or more campaign contributors to one or more of the justices. And, that’s just the money we know about because it’s been properly reported under the rules set forth in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. However, the overwhelming bulk of the money is spent by shadowy third-parties on issue ads, of whom we know virtually nothing.

Michigan’s high court judges are for sale and the voters don’t know who’s buying them. Sure, one can venture a guess based on their judicial record. But they’re certainly not going to tell who’s pulling their strings, in fact they mustn’t tell, because of Canon 7 B (1) (d) — It’s Code for keeping it a secret.

There is something we can do to make a real difference in 2014. Since T.V. stations are legally liable for the veracity of issue ads, we can tell them to shape-up by going to Flack Check – Michigan, a site that tracks and posts dubious issue ads by market area, and provides links to easily register complaints with the broadcasting station. How will this make a difference? If viewer complaints convince just one major carrier to reject the content of an issue ad, it will have a cascade effect starting with the third-party producer who will be forced to change that ad, and will likely run the replacement across all markets. Just a few victories, here and there, will serve as a warning to both the producers and the broadcasters  — that the public is watching them.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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Secret funding helped build vast network of climate denial thinktanks

Anonymous billionaires donated $120m to more than 100 anti-climate groups working to discredit climate change science

Funding climate deniersnn :  Americans For Prosperity

Climate sceptic groups are mobilising against Obama’s efforts to act on climate change in his second term. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(editor’s note:  this article refers to even more about members of the ALEC/Koch Cabal and their efforts to promote climate change denial)

How Donors Trust distributed millions to anti-climate groups

Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.

The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.

The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more.

Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust told the Guardian that her organisation assured wealthy donors that their funds would never by diverted to liberal causes.
Koch Industries Executive Vice President David H. Koch : Funding climate chang deniersThe funding stream far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“We exist to help donors promote liberty which we understand to be limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” she said in an interview.

By definition that means none of the money is going to end up with groups like Greenpeace, she said. “It won’t be going to liberals.”

Ball won’t divulge names, but she said the stable of donors represents a wide range of opinion on the American right. Increasingly over the years, those conservative donors have been pushing funds towards organisations working to discredit climate science or block climate action.

Donors exhibit sharp differences of opinion on many issues, Ball said. They run the spectrum of conservative opinion, from social conservatives to libertarians. But in opposing mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they found common ground.

“Are there both sides of an environmental issue? Probably not,” she went on. “Here is the thing. If you look at libertarians, you tend to have a lot of differences on things like defence, immigration, drugs, the war, things like that compared to conservatives. When it comes to issues like the environment, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced.”

By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118m distributed to 102 thinktanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.

The money flowed to Washington thinktanks embedded in Republican party politics, obscure policy forums in Alaska and Tennessee, contrarian scientists at Harvard and lesser institutions, even to buy up DVDs of a film attacking Al Gore.

The ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama’s environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change.
Graphic-climate-denial-secret funding - guardian UKGraphic: climate denial funding

Those same groups are now mobilising against Obama’s efforts to act on climate change in his second term. A top recipient of the secret funds on Wednesday put out a point-by-point critique of the climate content in the president’s state of the union address.

And it was all done with a guarantee of complete anonymity for the donors who wished to remain hidden.

“The funding of the denial machine is becoming increasingly invisible to public scrutiny. It’s also growing. Budgets for all these different groups are growing,” said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, which compiled the data on funding of the anti-climate groups using tax records.

“These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There is no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them,” Davies said.

The trusts were established for the express purpose of managing donations to a host of conservative causes.

Such vehicles, called donor-advised funds, are not uncommon in America. They offer a number of advantages to wealthy donors. They are convenient, cheaper to run than a private foundation, offer tax breaks and are lawful.

That opposition hardened over the years, especially from the mid-2000s where the Greenpeace record shows a sharp spike in funds to the anti-climate cause.

In effect, the Donors Trust was bankrolling a movement, said Robert Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist who has extensively researched the networks of ultra-conservative donors.

“This is what I call the counter-movement, a large-scale effort that is an organised effort and that is part and parcel of the conservative movement in the United States ” Brulle said. “We don’t know where a lot of the money is coming from, but we do know that Donors Trust is just one example of the dark money flowing into this effort.”

In his view, Brulle said: “Donors Trust is just the tip of a very big iceberg.”

The rise of that movement is evident in the funding stream. In 2002, the two trusts raised less than $900,000 for the anti-climate cause. That was a fraction of what Exxon Mobil or the conservative oil billionaire Koch brothers donated to climate skeptic groups that year.

By 2010, the two Donor Trusts between them were channelling just under $30m to a host of conservative organisations opposing climate action or science. That accounted to 46% of all their grants to conservative causes, according to the Greenpeace analysis.

The funding stream far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the records show. When it came to blocking action on the climate crisis, the obscure charity in the suburbs was outspending the Koch brothers by a factor of six to one.

“There is plenty of money coming from elsewhere,” said John Mashey, a retired computer executive who has researched funding for climate contrarians. “Focusing on the Kochs gets things confused. You can not ignore the Kochs. They have their fingers in too many things, but they are not the only ones.”

It is also possible the Kochs continued to fund their favourite projects using the anonymity offered by Donor Trust.

But the records suggest many other wealthy conservatives opened up their wallets to the anti-climate cause – an impression Ball wishes to stick.

She argued the media had overblown the Kochs support for conservative causes like climate contrarianism over the years. “It’s so funny that on the right we think George Soros funds everything, and on the left you guys think it is the evil Koch brothers who are behind everything. It’s just not true. If the Koch brothers didn’t exist we would still have a very healthy organisation,” Ball said.

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