You can only follow the money if you can see it

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By Sherry Robinson

If you’re trying to buy an election or throw an election, you’re in high clover. If you’re a concerned citizen or a reporter trying to find out who is buying elections, you’re in the weeds.
That was just one thought I had last week, sitting in a roomful of New Mexico journalists at a seminar titled, appropriately, “Follow The Money.”
Campaign finance is now so murky that it took a day for two smart people from the National Institute on Money in State Politics just to show us the websites we can use to tease out campaign donations. Seminar organizers were the Society of Professional Journalists and New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
Even with these tools, the big numbers and their donors still can’t be identified.
The Citizens United case in 2010 spawned a raft of organizations with lofty names that can accept donations in any amount without revealing the donor, as long as they abide by a few flimsy rules.
You have the familiar 501(c)3, which is most nonprofits. The 501(c)4 is a social welfare organization that supposedly promotes the common good for a community.
The 501(c)5 is a labor organization operating for the betterment of working conditions. The 501(c)6 is a business group, like the chamber of commerce.
Then there is the 527, which can spend money to influence an office. They’re usually behind the ads commanding you to call somebody and say enough is enough.
There’s an expression I’m tired of hearing. Enough is enough!
And you have the leadership funds of prominent elected officials, where the money moves sideways to support other candidates.
They come in all political flavors, from the liberal Center for Civic Policy to the conservative GOAL Advocacy, and they’ve spread like bindweed. Political Action Committees, PACs, have to report donors and donations, but groups that don’t have to report can contribute to PACs. And one PAC can contribute to another, which can contribute to a third. It becomes impossible to trace.
You probably thought money was all green. No, it’s soft, hard or dark. Hard money is regulated by the Federal Election Commission and can be tracked. Soft money comes to the parties in a way that can’t be tracked. Dark money comes from the groups whose donors aren’t revealed.
One encouraging note: In looking around the room, the journalists were multi-generational, and many represented small or rural papers. Their resources may be modest, but they’re up to the fight. And yet the best efforts aren’t going to get at the groups hiding in loopholes and the flood of dark money.
With my newly learned skills and a few minutes on followthemoney.com, I found that Gov. Susana Martinez has raised nearly $4.4 million from nearly 9,000 donations as of June 10, although not all records had been processed. I could see all the contributors and see that 6 of the top 10 were out of state.
Is this bad? Not necessarily. As followthemoney’s Eve Byron said, “We’re not saying it’s bad, we’re just saying.”
Nearly $3 million, from $10,000 to $1, came from individuals; 775 were from businesses or organizations. With more time, I could identify each donor’s location, their relationship to other donors, and their contributions to other candidates.
Remember, none of this is dark money. So we can gather a lot of information, but if you’re buying an election, you don’t have to lose any sleep.
That’s why it’s we’re cheering for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s constitutional amendment to reverse court decisions like Citizens United, stanch the flow of dark money, and let Congress and states regulate campaign finance.
This is not a partisan issue. It’s in everybody’s interest to give elections back to the public.