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Citizens United Decision Could Lead to Foreign Interests Influencing US Elections

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This post was written by Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation.

"What we're seeing here is the opening phase of what will turn into being the largest scandal in American history ... because it involves foreigners being directly involved in the American political system [and] the American government..."

That was then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 1996, speaking about the Clinton White House raising campaign contributions from illegal foreign sources. If only he expressed as much concern now about the possibility of foreign money infiltrating our elections today. Because now, even more than in 1996, there exists the real possibility that foreign money can be laundered into our political system, with no one, save the possible beneficiary, any the wiser.

It should come as no surprise that the trigger for foreign contributions possibly finding an inroad into US elections is none other than the Citizens United decision. Here's why. By lifting the prohibitions on corporations' ability to make direct expenditures influencing federal elections, Citizens United allows 501(c)(4) nonprofits to fund independent expenditures and electioneering communications without disclosing where the money came from. Citizens United created an environment in which it is perfectly legal for a shell non-profit corporation to engage in election-related spending on behalf of a hidden interest. And there is nothing to ensure that the hidden interest is not a foreign national, a foreign company or a foreign government.

It's ironic that while allowing for the very real possibility of foreign money to secretly infect our elections, the Supreme Court recently affirmed that foreign nationals are prohibited from making contributions or expenditures in connection with U.S. elections.

How can the court have it both ways? How, too, can the party that so vigorously investigated foreign fundraising by the Clinton White House blithely refuse to take any action that would remedy the situation? (Full disclosure, I worked on the Senate investigation for the minority party. Allegations of secret foreign money lining party coffers came from both sides.)

One tool to ensure that illegal foreign contributions do not influence US elections is the DISCLOSE Act. That bill, which was blocked by Republicans in 2010 and is likely to suffer the same fate again this year, would impose disclosure requirements on nonprofits that make political expenditures, thereby uncovering or even preventing the laundering of foreign money.

The party's opposition to disclosure today is a far cry from the outrage they voiced when they accused the Clinton White House from benefitting from illegal foreign contributions. Dan Burton, Chair of the House committee that was investigating the foreign money allegations, said this at the time: "Foreign money was funneled to straw donors. Straw donors gave money to the DNC and other campaigns. Campaign officials claimed to have no idea anything suspicious was going on. It happened time and time again with John Huang, James Riady, Charlie Trie, Pauline Kanchanalak, Ted Sioeng, Johnny Chung, and Mark Jimenez." Yet, when given the opportunity to vote on the DISCLOSE Act in 2010, Mr. Burton voted no.

Senator Roger Wicker was also a no vote on DISCLOSE, despite articulating a very strong position against foreign money in our elections. "If you are not a United States citizen, or a United States national, you should not be able to influence the electoral process. It is wrong and dangerous to allow a potential to exist for undue foreign influence in electing Federal officials."

And possibly demonstrating that history repeats itself, Rep. Gingrich expressed concern about foreign money paying for distorting campaign ads. "The negative advertising that you're seeing... which is factually false is actually being paid for by foreigners who are funneling money to the Clinton administration." Gingrich described it as "a very serious problem," going on to say, "If we ever lose control of this country to foreign influence peddling then we are in for some very real difficulties." Perhaps Gingrich, who described himself as "delighted" about the Citizens United decision, and who would like to see the law "allow anyone to give unlimited amounts of after-tax money, with the understanding that they would file every night on the Internet what they're spending and how they're spending it, so everybody could see who was involved," could encourage his fellow Republicans to support disclosure as a means of preventing foreign money laundering.

It is difficult to imagine a credible objection being made to disclosure by nonprofits if it will keep illegal foreign contributions out of the system. The opaque system currently in place leaves open the possibility that a generous illegal foreign donor can inform a candidate of its support, even while the public remains in the dark. Moreover, even if, as some argue, secret contributions are not corrupting because the candidate does not know the source of the money, the credibility of a campaign ad rests on who is paying for it. The public needs to know who the messenger is to fully understand the message. Finally, as long as we believe that foreign interests should not influence our elections, strong preventative measures must be in place to ensure such interests are not provided with a vehicle to assist the election efforts of any candidate.

"The American people really want to know if foreign governments and foreign individuals are trying to influence our elections. I think they want to know who their government is beholden to." That was Representative Burton again. But I couldn't have said it better myself.

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