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Hey, big secret spender

I know you’re as shocked as I am to learn that there are unknown entities spending large quantities of money in this election.

Campaign finance watchdogs say the tactic conceals important information about who is backing a political cause, but both groups insist they have followed the law and anonymity had nothing to do with their rationale for setting up as nonprofits.

“We are plunging deep into scandal,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance reform advocate for Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization. “Without disclosure, we have no idea where this money is coming from and no way to determine whether it’s legal or illegal. You could have drug cartels investing in an election on the Texas border, wanting to soften the laws, and there would be no way to know it.”


The national trend has manifested itself locally this year with two groups: King Street Patriots, an advocacy organization that was accused by Democrats this week of being responsible for complaints of voter intimidation at minority precincts; and Renew Houston, the driving force behind a ballot initiative asking voters to pay for a 20-year, $8 billion infrastructure program for the city.

Both organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code as “social welfare” organizations, which by tax law requires that at least 51 percent of their spending be dedicated to non-political purposes such as education. The use of that designation also exempts them, under federal law, from having to disclose donors.

The Texas Democratic Party on Monday said that under Texas law, King Street Patriots, due to the nature of its political advocacy, should be registered as a political committee, which would require that its donors be publicly disclosed. The party said it would include the group in a lawsuit over allegations of illegal election practices.

“You can spend all the money you want in Texas on political speech, you’ve just got to tell people who’s paying for it,” said Chad Dunn, general counsel of the Texas Democratic Party. “But when you have the King Street Patriots out there doing what they’re doing on the side, it’s all in the dark.”

The US Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove are leading the way on this. The Chamber has been arguing that it should be allowed to continue to shield the identity of its donors because some of them might face criticism and bad publicity for doing so. Who knew they were all such delicate flowers? Seems to me that’s a pretty good argument for them to not make such donations, but what do I know?

While the amount of money being sloshed about is unprecedented, it’s not like we’ve never seen this sort of thing before. Remember Texans for True Mobility? How about those anonymous attack mailers against Adrian Garcia in 2003? The only difference between then and now is the level of brazenness, and the size of the checks.

It’s unfortunate to see the Prop 1 campaign lumped in with these other groups on this story, since they did the right thing and disclosed their donors when they weren’t required to, and became an official PAC when they switched from getting on the ballot to advocacy mode. They’ve had some other issues with their campaign, but they got this right.

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