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Senators Call For SEC To Shed Light On Dark Money

Even as fundraising prowess remains a key indicator of success in the presidential primary campaign, a group of U.S. Senators are prompting the Securities and Exchange Commission to shed light on so-called "dark money" and help address what they see as a growing crisis of out-of-control political spending. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas joined them on a conference call this afternoon...

The  call, organized by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, coincides with the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That ruling gave corporations the green light to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. The Senators, all Democrats from our region, say it also led to enormous amounts of money being funneled anonymously through trade associations and so-called social welfare groups, spent to influence elections.    "Special interests have plowed hundreds of millions of dollars of dark money into our elections, creating a rigged system that makes it harder for individuals that will fight to give more families to get to and stay in the middle class. Citizens United has had a corrosive effect on our elections, our politics, and frankly, on the whole fabric of this country."

New York U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer places blame on Republicans in Congress, who he says instead of fixing the system, have made it worse.  Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren says Citizens United must be reversed — but until it is, she suggests creation of a strong SEC rule on corporate political disclosure.   "Shareholders have a right to know how companies they invest in are spending their money. The idea that a company can take your money, spend big parts of it in ways that you may not agree with and then choose not to disclose it, is just fundamentally wrong. This creates an elite that can use investors money to promote their own personal political preferences."

According to USPIRG, the SEC can work on a rule requiring publicly held companies to disclose details of their political spending. The rider states only that the agency can’t finalize a rule, which means that the agency can draft a rule and seek comments on it.   "And it's why more than one million people have written to the SEC, asking them to issue a rule like that.  The problem of course, is that there are a lot of powerful and well-connected people who want to keep this spending secret, and a lot of people in Congress, who benefit from that secret spending. And that's how the Republicans were able to jam a rider into the must-pass omnibus spending bill that tried to tie the SEC's hands on this rule. The rider very clearly did not limit the SEC's ability to prepare the rule or to meet with interested parties."             

New Jersey U.S. Senator Bob Menendez believes President Obama could take executive action on a campaign spending rule.   "I had previously signed a letter urging the president to issue an executive order requiring contractors to disclose their political contributions, and also co-signed another letter in the wake of the omnibus, urging him to do so. I believe, that even with the omnibus language, which, fact of the matter is that the omnibus may try to prohibit the administration from requiring a federal contractor to disclose campaign contributions as a condition of bidding on the federal contract, but the exact language of the bill allows regulations requiring disclosure after the contractor has secured the contract, And I think that is a deeply important reality, and I hope the president will do so."

With campaign finance reform also on the agenda in Albany, New York State League of Women Voters’ Executive Director Barbara Bartoletti thinks the Senators have "finally gotten the message."   "They're finally beginning to get the inequities in our political system that allows the big money special interests here in New York State and federally and PACS and et cetera: there are so many avenues for this dark money to flow. And people now, in this what we are seeing in the presidential election, people are now beginning to say 'enough!' We have 158 families in this country that are controlling all of what goes on in this country and it's advancing those families and the corporations they govern instead of the average citizen, and our voice no longer means anything."

According to The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, the dark money groups are multiplying — and thriving — on both ends of the political spectrum.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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