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Wanna Buy an Election? Mother Jones Exposé on Dark Money, Citizens United (Pt. 2)

Web ExclusiveJune 22, 2012
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Part two of our conversation with Monika Bauerlein and Andy Kroll of Mother Jones magazine. The new cover story in the magazine is called “Follow the Dark Money.” We discuss at how Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson and others are bankrolling Mitt Romney’s campaign, why President Obama has opted to accepted unlimited super PAC donations, as well, and Stephen Colbert’s role in the debate over campaign finance.

Watch part 1 of interview

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the 2012 presidential election, which is set to become the most expensive race in history. Experts project that spending will top a staggering $11 billion, which is more than double the 2008 total. It will be the first presidential election since the landmark Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. The ruling lifted a 63-year-old ban prohibiting corporations, trade associations and unions from spending unlimited amounts of money on political advocacy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by two guests in part two of our interview. Andy Kroll, reporter for Mother Jones magazine, is in Washington. He’s got a cover story of Mother Jones called “Follow the Dark Money.” He writes, quote, “Super-PACs, seven-figure checks, billionaire bankrollers, shadowy nonprofits: This is the state of play in what will be the first presidential election since Watergate to be fully privately funded.”

I want to begin by turning to a clip of James Bopp Jr. He was a central figure in the conservative movement to deregulate campaign finance and helped usher in super PACs. This is how he defends the Citizens United ruling. There’s some background noise, so listen carefully.

JAMES BOPP JR.: Well, the Citizens United case frees up corporations and labor unions to be able to speak out and give their point of view on who they think should be elected to public office. Of course, this is most important to advocacy groups that are formed to advocate for certain issues or public policy, governmental action, and ultimately candidates, you know, and that’s whichever side of the aisle they might be on—that is, Sierra Club or Planned Parenthood or National Right to Life. This means that they are—they have the same freedom that everyone has to speak out if they think they have a point of view that they would like to share.

AMY GOODMAN: Who exactly, Andy Kroll, is Bopp?

ANDY KROLL: Jim Bopp is, if not the central character on the conservative side, the libertarian side of this fight, he is one of the main characters. He is in this piece. You know, he is a cool, calm, very soft-spoken attorney who lives in Indiana, who, you know, over the past 20 years or so, has just demolished hundreds of campaign finance laws at the state and federal level. And he’s done it in a very methodical way. He’s done it in a very sort of subtle or quiet way. You know, there’s not much fanfare. He doesn’t belong to a think tank or a big white-shoe law firm.

And the thing with Jim Bopp that I really focus on in the piece is that Jim Bopp did not decide one day that he was going to start toppling laws governing money in politics, spending restrictions, disclosure laws, etc. What Jim Bopp did was sort of hitch his wagon to the anti-abortion movement—he was the counsel for the National Right to Life organization, he represented the state chapters—and essentially used the culture wars. He used the anti-abortion movement. More recently, he’s used the anti-same-sex marriage movement to—you know, basically as a vehicle to go around the country and challenge the legality of rules about money in politics. And he has been quite successful, even more so when John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the U.S. Supreme Court, essentially paving the way for the Citizens United decision and, frankly, another big decision before that, which was the Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC. And that was something brought by Jim Bopp. And so, he has this—sort of pioneered this strategy, and it has been incredibly effective. And it’s—he is a large part of why we’re in this cash-drenched political system, this political environment that we have now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Andy, you’ve gone a little further in your article. You’ve said that you believe that the—all of this deregulation of campaign financing is a direct outgrowth of the culture wars. Could you explain that?

ANDY KROLL: Yeah. I mean, it’s—you know, the culture wars have been—obviously they have been chugging along for decades now. And they—you know, it’s incredibly divisive. It’s a reason why we have, you know, a conservative—massive conservative movement, and you have people in the middle of the country who seemingly vote against their own economic interests, as Tom Frank has written, for instance, in the past. Jim Bopp just recognized that, you know, he could go about tackling and taking down campaign finance regulations and loosing this torrent of money in our politics, and he could do it sort of under the guise of National Right to Life or the National Organization for Marriage, which is virulently anti-gay marriage. And he could do that, and people wouldn’t necessarily pick up on it as much—until they have now, because he’s been so successful. But he was very subtle about it, and he knew that the culture wars were not just about the issues, like guns or gay marriage or abortion, but that underlying all of these issues is money, and it’s money in politics. And he—you know, he realized—and I read—and I quote somebody in piece to this effect: he realized that those culture war issues, as well as every other issue, you know, money in politics underlies all of this policy. And if you can deregulate money in politics, deregulate campaign finance, as Bopp has, you can essentially buy the policy outcomes that you want. You’ve knocked down the laws governing how much money can come into our system, and then you can just get the policy outcomes that you want, whether it’s on gun rights, whether it’s on tax policy, you know, whatever. And this is sort of the genius of Jim Bopp, if you will.

AMY GOODMAN: Monika Bauerlein, you’re co-editor of Mother Jones. You’re devoting this issue, “Wanna Buy an Election?: Inside the 40-Year Campaign to Sell Democracy to the Highest Bidder.” Explain this concept, the term that Mother Jones has coined “dark money.”

MONIKA BAUERLEIN: It’s an astronomical metaphor, of course—you know, we have dark matter in the universe—where the universe of politics is full of these visible celestial bodies: politicians and campaigns and traditional PACs and talking heads and surrogates and pundits and so forth. But then flowing around them is this dark matter, this money that we don’t know exactly—as, in fact, none other than Senator John McCain has said that we don’t know where it’s coming from, we don’t know what it’s trying to buy, we don’t know where it’s going, and it exerts this incredibly powerful force on the movements of all the things that we see.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the role of the press, of the—especially of the commercial media, in shedding light on this dark money? Obviously, a lot of the money that’s being raised ends up going to paid advertising on television and radio and in newspapers. So there’s a self-interest problem here for the press, in terms of unmasking or campaigning against this dark money.

MONIKA BAUERLEIN: It is an influx of money for broadcasters, and to some extent, print media. And, you know, surely they all need it. It is also true that it’s really hard to follow for reporters. It’s not—you know, because it’s dark money, it doesn’t disclose itself, it doesn’t advertise itself, it often doesn’t hold press conferences. So you have to really chase—I mean, the kind of work that Andy has to do of identifying the source behind a TV ad that’s in heavy rotation in, you know, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and saying this is being paid for by a P.O. box that gets its money from another P.O. box in suburban Virginia that gets its money from another P.O. box in Texas, and behind that last P.O. box are three corporations that are really underwritten by the same individual. You know, that kind of thing is very hard to do, and most news organizations at this point don’t have the bandwidth or the reporting power to go after it, which is why, up until now, we had laws requiring disclosure and requiring these entities themselves to tell citizens what they’re up to. And that’s all gone, or mostly gone, as a result of the Citizens United decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s stick with the Wisconsin recall election earlier this month, the most expensive in the state’s history, with more than $63 million spent. Governor Walker, who survived the recall, outspent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett seven to one, close to eight to one. I want to turn to an ad that was bankrolled by this secretive Virginia-based organization called the Coalition for American Values.

KAREN: I didn’t vote for Governor Walker.

LINDA: I did not vote for Scott Walker.

TIM: I didn’t vote for Scott Walker, Joel, but I’m definitely against this recall.

JIM: Recall isn’t the Wisconsin way.

KAREN: There’s a right way. There’s a wrong way. And I just—I think this is the wrong way.

JIM: I elected him to do a job.

BOB: Let him serve it out.

BOB: Living in a democracy, you have to have faith in who the people elect.

CHAD: I didn’t vote for Scott Walker, but I’m against the recall.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is an ingenious ad, because I’m sure they did some kind of focus groups or polling, and they saw that Walker was not popular in Wisconsin. But they realized they could raise the issue of the recall being undemocratic. You know, there was an election, someone was elected, let him serve out his time. Andy Kroll, talk about who it was that bankrolled this.

ANDY KROLL: I wish I could tell you exactly who it was, because I—but I still don’t know. The group behind it was called the Coalition of American Values, which it does really not get more generic than, I guess, Americans for a Better America. What I found—so this ad comes out. As you mentioned, it really does have a potent message. And in retrospect, you know, or in hindsight, we now know that it was incredibly potent, because exit polls showed that a lot of the people who voted for Walker were really voting—you know, were voting on discontent over the recall itself. So, I start digging into this group, find that their address in Milwaukee, in the state, is a mailbox, essentially, and that their office—they have another office in Virginia, and that’s a UPS store box. And so, there is no home address or home office. The treasurer, as far as I could tell, and we could never actually pin this down, was a gentleman named Brent Downs, who appeared to be a recent graduate of a university in Milwaukee, didn’t answer phone calls, didn’t reply to emails.

And what brought them to my attention was not only were they running this ad and spending six figures on this ad around the state, they had not filed a single report with a state disclosing their spending. I mean, it’s one thing to just funnel money through an incorporation—an incorporated entity in Virginia into Milwaukee, into Wisconsin, and not tell us where your money came from, and they can legally do that with the weird way that campaign finance law works in Wisconsin post-Citizens United, but we also had no idea what they were spending. And I raised this with the elections watchdog in Wisconsin. And not only had this group not disclosed its donors, but they had not even filed a report on their spending, as required. This is what brought them to my attention before the election. They said they were going to fix it. They still hadn’t.

And so, what you—you know, the takeaway here is you have Wisconsinites who are completely in the dark about a group called the Coalition for American Values, running ads in their state, telling them that this recall is bad; not only do they not know who the donors are, based on our tattered campaign finance system, but they also don’t know how much this group is spending, really, and where, as the group is required to disclose. And so, it was just a—it was a really, really disturbing glimpse into how dark money can come into a state election and put out this message, and surely have an impact on voters, and keep those same voters entirely in the dark about how much is being spent, who’s spending it, and just who the heck is behind this group in the first place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and this is—this is the modern version of the cash in suitcases that is delivered before an election. The ability of these folks to continue to get away with this, what is—what’s the hope for citizens who are concerned about fair elections to be able to effect any kind of change?

ANDY KROLL: Well, they can’t pin their hope on regulators or the cops on the beat, especially at the federal level. The Federal Election Commission, which is the main cop on the beat here in Washington, is hopelessly gridlocked and compromised, and it has sort of been taken hostage by three of its—three of its six commissioners are conservatives who, frankly, don’t believe in enforcing the law as it stands today. And so, they have reduced the FEC to sort of a mumbling waste of time, if you will. I mean, I really think it comes—you know, if the hope—if the citizens, you know, want some kind of hope or need to look somewhere for, you know, information or inspiration, I mean, they’ve really got to look to the media outlets in—whether nationally or in their communities, who are covering this issue, because that is where the information is coming from. And there are a lot of good reporters out there on this beat who are knocking on doors, who are going to UPS stores, who are, you know, riffling through, rifling through thousands of documents and trying to put names and faces in context to all this money coming into our elections. And there are a lot of good people doing this, and, you know, that’s really where the public has to go, because our watchdogs are—just they’ve fallen down on the job, and they’re not really—there’s really no hope for them this election cycle, it seems.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, comedian TV host Stephen Colbert mocked the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling by announcing a planned presidential run in the South Carolina primary. On his show, The Colbert Report, he explained, because he’s barred from entering the race and simultaneously running a super political action committee, or super PAC, Colbert had given up control of his super PAC to fellow talk show host Jon Stewart.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Trevor, if you will.

TREVOR POTTER: Colbert Super PAC transfer, activate.

STEPHEN COLBERT: I am proud to announce that I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my possible candidacy for the president of the United States of South Carolina. I’m doing it!

AMY GOODMAN: That was Stephen Colbert. Monika Bauerlein, talk about what he is making fun of, and also name names here—for example, Karl Rove’s dark money outfit, Crossroads GPS. Obama’s campaign chief counsel Robert Bauer filed a complaint with the FEC arguing that Crossroads GPS now has an obligation to disclose its anonymous donors without delay. Tell us specifically here who’s in charge.

MONIKA BAUERLEIN: What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United was say that when you are not giving your money in a campaign directly to the candidate’s committee, to their candidate’s official campaign committee, then we cannot regulate you, because you are free to speak your mind—and spending a ton of money is a form of speaking your mind. And the court also found that corporations are persons, just like you and me, with protected free speech rights, so that corporations can also speak their minds and spend tons of money as they see fit. And so, this distinction between doing this as what’s called as an “outside expenditure” and vis-à-vis giving directly to a campaign is really critical. That’s the only—that is, if you will, the thin legal thread on which this deregulatory effort rests. In order to spend money as they see fit, these entities have to maintain the facade, I’ll say, that they are entirely independent of campaigns and really have nothing to do directly with the candidates they support. And so, that’s why Colbert had to beam his super PAC over to Jon Stewart. That’s why there are great lengths being gone to to make sure that the committee that everybody knows is supporting Mitt Romney’s candidacy is not directly connected to Mitt Romney, even though we all understand whom they’re trying to elect. And so, disclosure of who is giving money to these committees, how they’re spending it, is fairly critical to citizens being able to evaluate them. And at the same time, nondisclosure is pretty critical to these organizations’ ability to do what they want to do, which is influence elections quickly and without people catching on to them necessarily.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the billionaire casino mogul and right-wing donor, Sheldon Adelson, has thrown his financial support behind Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. Adelson and his wife have donated $10 million to the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, in the past few days. Adelson initially supported Newt Gingrich during the Republican primary, giving a pro-Gingrich super PAC more than $20 million. Adelson said he could do—he could wind up spending up to $100 million to support Republican candidates in the 2012 race. And ironically, though, the donation by Gingrich’s former backer to Romney came just as Gingrich himself openly complained that U.S. elections are rigged in favor of the wealthy. Gingrich was speaking in an appearance on MSNBC.

NEWT GINGRICH: It’s very hard to compete with a billionaire, if they get to spend all the money they want and the middle-class candidate’s raising money in $2,500 units. So I think the current system is rigged, frankly, in favor of the wealthy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Monika, your response, given the fact that Gingrich stayed in the race for so long because of the money that was donated to him by Adelson?

MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Good for him, you know. I mean, you might say even a stopped clock is right once a day. I mean, Gingrich hits it on the head here, that in fact it’s true that billionaires are underwriting political campaigns and are in a position to change our political fortunes in a way that regular people at this point really cannot. And, you know, Sheldon Adelson is somebody we know about, because he is public about his giving, but there are a lot of people whom we cannot know about. They can conceal their giving in a 501(c) organization, that then gives the money to a super PAC, that then spends it, and it’s very, very hard to trace it back to who originally made that investment and what they expect as a return on that investment, if you will.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, one of the co-chairs of President Obama’s re-election campaign has openly criticized the president’s decision to accept super PAC funds. Democracy Now! spoke to former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin after his appointment as co-chair of the Obama re-election campaign in February.

RUSS FEINGOLD: And I think it’s a big mistake to go down the road of unlimited, undisclosed corporate contributions. That’s not Barack—who Barack Obama is. That’s not what the Democratic Party should be. And I think it doesn’t help him get re-elected. And I think it delivers the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, to corporate power and corporate domination. So, that’s why Progressives United and I feel this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Yep, that is Russ Feingold. It wasn’t hours after he was chosen as one of the co-chairs of President Obama’s re-election campaign. Andy Kroll, talk about this. I mean, often the corporate media just expresses the range of debate between the Republicans and the Democrats, and often that debate is almost nil. We’re in an election year. It may come up a little more, because President Obama is so far behind in raising money that they may start to raise this issue. But they’re going after the same money trough. They are picking the same pockets as the Republicans. So it’s unlikely that the Democrats are going to be raising this issue and going after the super PACs. Can you please talk about that?

ANDY KROLL: Yeah. The Obama campaign is in a weird place right now. And their attempts to court big donors for—for instance, for the Priorities USA Action super PAC, which is a strictly pro-Obama super PAC, is in a very difficult spot, because, you know, in 2008 President Obama said, “No, we don’t want any outside help. We don’t want any outside political groups spending money independently to help us or to attack George W. Bush. You know, we want complete control of our message.” And, you know, the irony is that the Obama staffer in 2008 tasked with basically getting those outside groups out of the picture is a man named Bill Burton, who is now running President Obama’s super PAC. There’s a little bit of irony there.

Problem is, you have the Citizens United decision, you have the decision, which directly paved the way for super PACs, and what you have is a political playing field in which Republicans have no qualms with raising unlimited money, with going to the Sheldon Adelsons, with going to the Harold Simmonses of the world, these big donors, and just raking in seven- and eight-figure donations. You know, what the Democrats will tell you is that: “We cannot unilaterally disarm” is one line they use. “We cannot fight with one hand tied behind our back” is another line that they use. “We are going to use all the tools at our disposal to try to win this race, both at the presidential level and in House race and in Senate races.”

I was just sitting down with a super PAC fundraiser for the Democrats yesterday. And, you know, his line is, you know, “We’ve got to play by the rules of the game as we have them, and the president, you know, is going to get steamrolled by money from Sheldon Adelson, by money from the Koch brothers and their donor network, by money from, you know, the conservative movement anyway. He’s going to get steamrolled. He’s going to get buried in money anyway. But we have to punch back against that money. And we’re going to use every tool that we can.” It’s interesting, though, because you see, for instance, Obama adviser David Axelrod out talking to people and saying, “You know, we might think about a constitutional amendment to fix Citizens United after we win this race. You know, we’re going to think about big-time campaign finance reform. We’re really concerned about super PACs.” But, you know, they’re saying one thing, and they’re, in a way, doing—they’re really in a tough spot, but they’re going to—they’re going to jump into this money race just as much as the other side, because they think it’s crucial, and they think they’re dead in the water if they don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Andy Kroll and Monika Bauerlein, both of Mother Jones magazine—Monika, co-editor; Andy Kroll, the leading reporter on this remarkable issue, “Wanna Buy an Election?: Inside the 40-Year Campaign to Sell Democracy to the Highest Bidder,” talking about dark money in the 2012 presidential election. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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