In his review of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” environmental writer Bill McKibben condemns moguls such as the Koch brothers for hiding “their contributions through outfits like DonorsTrust.” In other words, according to Mr. McKibben, DonorsTrust, which is “committed to the principles of limited government, personal responsibility and free enterprise,” is a conservative dark money conduit.
Such dark money, however, is not just the domain of wealthy conservatives and libertarians. The term entered politics following the U.S. Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976) in which the court ruled that money given for issue advocacy — not for direct electioneering — is protected by the First Amendment and therefore that sources need not be disclosed.
As a result, dark money for advocacy purposes has grown exponentially. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in 2012.”
Dark money allows those speaking to be less than transparent. As long as non-profit recipients avoid the “eight magic words” listed in the Supreme Court ruling — “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “cast your ballot for,” “Smith for Congress,” “vote against,” “defeat,” or “reject” — they say about anything they wish.
Environmental causes are among the worst for transparency. Recently, the issue of dark money surfaced in Maine’s Democratic congressional primary. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Maine Outdoor Alliance spent $300,000 on ads praising the efforts by candidate Lucas St. Clair, heir to the Burt’s Bees fortune, to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine. His opponent, Jared Golden, ran ads calling on the allinace to “step out of the dark money shadows,” which it was not required to do and did not do.
In Alabama’s December 2017 U.S. Senate election, a super PAC called Highway 31, named for a highway that bisects the state, received $250,000 to support the Democratic candidate from the League of Conservation Voters with no disclosure of the funding source.
The increase in dark money spending on environmental issues is especially evident in Montana. A report titled “Target: Montana” documents how dark money is used in Treasure State environmental politics. For example, when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that he would review national monuments, a group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers spent $1.4 million of dark money in August 2017 on an ad campaign attaching Mr. Zinke on the grounds that reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument would also reduce access for hunting. On the contrary, everything Mr. Zinke has done regarding national monuments has increased hunting opportunities.
Similarly, the Montana Wilderness Association launched an ad campaign under the banner of “Our Land, Our Legacy” to gain access to public lands through private property. More than 95 percent of the foundation’s money going to the Montana Wilderness Association comes from outside the state, including $904,000 from the Denver-based Western Conservation Foundation and $240,000 from the liberal dark money conduit, New Venture Fund.
Their campaign features a family wandering off to cut a Christmas tree. When they come to a gate with a “No Trespassing” sign, the family turns away dejected. The take-away is supposed to be that private property owners are blocking access to public land, but it should be that the family was “poaching” a tree on private property.
Under the First Amendment there is nothing illegal about dark money, but it does raise two serious questions: How valid are the claims in the environmental campaigns; and whose voices should be heard in local politics? To be sure, there is plenty of hyperbole on all sides of environmental debates whether from the Koch brothers or from Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss. Accountability for hyperbole, however, is difficult without transparency.
Dark money also makes it difficult to know who is speaking. From Maine to Montana dark money support is usually not local. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, for example, boasts having 17,000 members, yet more than 50 percent of its funding comes from large out-of-state foundations. Another report titled “Montana in the Crosshairs” links Montana funding to the Open Society Institute bankrolled by Hungarian billionaire George Soros and to Klein Ltd., a shell company in Bermuda linked to Russian state-owned oil interests.
In reviewing Mr. St. Clair’s Maine monument, Secretary Zinke got it right when he said, “I think the solutions should be made-in-Maine solutions, not made-in-Washington.” To that we should add, not be made by distant, wealthy donors whether liberal, conservative or libertarian.
• Terry L. Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.