WASHINGTON -- For four months, the Republican Party and its many presidential hopefuls have laid into likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over donations to a family foundation. That these attacks contradict the GOP's broader stand on campaign finance -- and call into question their own weighty burden of donor conflicts -- hasn't troubled them at all.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called contributions to the nonprofit Clinton Foundation “thinly veiled bribes.” The nation can’t afford the “drama” represented by those donations, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina asked Clinton to explain why contributions to the foundation “don’t represent a conflict of interest.” And the Republican National Committee has made the donations a central part of its campaign against Clinton.
In embracing this critique of the Clinton Foundation, Republicans are investing in a view of money in politics that they have otherwise rejected in recent years: that spending money to gain influence over or access to elected or appointed officials represents a conflict of interest or an appearance of corruption or could even lead to outright corruption.
Since 2010, the conservative Supreme Court majority has rejected this argument as a reason to regulate campaign finance in their Citizens United, McCutcheon and Williams-Yulee decisions. Most leading Republican federal officeholders now take the view that spending of any sort on campaigns should not be impeded by legal restrictions as fears of corruption are overblown.
So the critical piling on Clinton Foundation donations creates a problem for Republicans, especially those running for president. If contributions to the foundation, a 501(c)(3) entity not involved in political campaigns, create a valid source of corruption concern, then what are we to make of the hundreds of millions of dollars in undisclosed donations to 501(c)(4) nonprofits that have worked to elect Republicans over the past three elections?
Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the door for unlimited corporate, union and, ultimately, individual spending on elections, Republicans have maneuvered to use so-called dark money nonprofits to fund large portions of their electoral efforts. Dark money spending on federal races exceeded $400 million in the 2012 presidential election and $200 million in the 2014 midterms with the vast majority of those dollars going to aid Republican candidates, according to previous analysis by The Huffington Post.
Where the Clinton Foundation is concerned, the public knows who the donors are and, thus, the press can report on the mutually beneficial relationship between Bill Clinton and billionaire donor Frank Giustra or point out that a majority of those also lobbied the Hillary Clinton-led State Department or note that both Clintons have been very supportive of the Moroccan government, a foundation donor, as it occupies the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
The public is not privy, however, to the sources of funds fueling a large part of the Republican electoral apparatus and a smaller part of Democratic efforts. Party leaders and wealthy donors have increasingly worked through nonprofits that are not required to disclose their funding sources.
Republicans, including those now running for president, defend dark money groups as a means to protect what they argue is the First Amendment right of donors to engage in political activity without "retaliation." Perhaps, that retaliation would come in the form of stories informing the public about how those donors are seeking to influence public policy.
Just to be clear, the Supreme Court, even amidst its deregulatory frenzy, has said that public disclosure of contributions to campaigns and independent groups is both constitutional and vital to fair elections.
The very limited record on dark money shows that those funding these groups -- just like those funding super PACs, which must identify their donors -- include many high-powered corporate and individual interests with well-connected lobbyists in search of favors. HuffPost reports have found that dark money groups tightly connected to congressional and party leadership, both Democratic and Republican, have received large sums from pharmaceutical, insurance, banking and online payday lenders seeking specific policy changes while retaining lobbyists previously employed by those very leaders.
This year, GOP presidential candidates are copying this model on an individual level, by launching their very own dark money groups to rake in secret contributions.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has his Right to Rise Policy Solutions, which is playing an increasingly important role in his not-yet-declared, super-PAC-centered presidential campaign. Rubio's advisers run the Conservative Policy Solutions group in collaboration with an affiliated super PAC. And potential candidates like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are all running around the country fueled by funding from undisclosed nonprofit groups.
Then there is the case of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, currently running another not-yet-announced presidential campaign.
In 2012, Walker faced a recall election after labor unions in his state rebelled over legislation gutting public employee union rights. His recall campaign coordinated with a band of nonprofit political groups, led by the Wisconsin Club for Growth, to promote Walker and his policies in a positive light. Walker aides worked closely with the outside groups, and the governor directly raised undisclosed contributions for the effort.
A bipartisan investigation by district attorneys into Walker’s coordination with those outside groups revealed some of their funding sources, including a $700,000 contribution to the Wisconsin Club for Growth from Gogebic Taconite at the exact time the company was seeking a rewrite of state mining and environmental laws.
John Menard Jr., considered the wealthiest man in Wisconsin, was another big donor to the save-Walker effort. The billionaire owner of the chain store Menards gave $1.5 million to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, according to a report by Yahoo News. During Walker’s term in office, Menard’s company received $1.8 million in tax credits from an economic development corporation led by the governor. He also received help in his battle with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as Walker defanged the watchdog agency.
Others who gave to the coordinated Walker effort include billionaires Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, Bruce Kovner, Donald Trump, Ken Langone and Steven Cohen.
As Hillary Clinton has done with contributions to her family’s foundation, Walker denies any conflict of interest involving donors to his coordinated recall effort. But the full list of contributors is unknown.
The same failure to see their own conflicts applies to candidates elected since the Citizens United decision precipitated the dramatic rise in dark money. Both Paul and Rubio were elected to the Senate in 2010 with $2.3 million and $2.7 million, respectively, in allied spending by groups that do not disclose their donors, including the Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Thanks to its bankruptcy filings, it is known that for-profit Corinthian Colleges made contributions to Crossroads GPS. While the dates and amounts of those donations are still hidden, Rubio’s strong support for Corinthian is well-established. In 2014, he pleaded with the Department of Education for leniency for the company as it faced a fraud investigation.
No one doubts that huge sums of dark money will again be spent supporting presidential candidates in the 2016 election. While the public will be able to consider whether the corporations, billionaires and foreign governments that contributed to the Clinton Foundation would hold undue sway over a Clinton White House, they will not even know the identities of those pouring in the secret donations.