While everyone accused of a crime, no matter how serious it may be, is granted the presumption of innocence until they’re proven guilty, that’s a legal standard. It doesn’t apply in the court of public opinion. So it’s no surprise that the Maine Republican Party immediately pointed out that Eliot Cutler, the two-time independent gubernatorial candidate arrested on child pornography charges, was also a political donor who gave money to Democrats. People who accepted his donations in the past have been rushing to give that money to worthy charities, but for the most part, that’s nothing more than political theatrics.

That’s not a minimization of the charges against Cutler, but a simple recognition that if he hadn’t donated that money, somebody else would have – regardless of the amount. There’s always somebody out there with deep pockets willing to bankroll candidates, and any time any donor is caught in some scandal they’re easily – and quickly – replaced. While it’s important for candidates and political parties to raise a lot of money these days, it’s rare that any one donor is irreplaceable. In a sense this is actually uplifting, since it means that no one person really has that much influence over the political process. Granted, it’s for a perverse reason – the system is so awash in money that individuals don’t matter as much – but it keeps the United States from descending into a total kleptocracy.

No, the problem with our campaign finance system isn’t individuals donating obscene amounts to candidates or parties. It’s not corporate donations. Those are allowed under Maine law, and they’re subject to the same contribution limits as individuals. The contributions to political action committees and political parties themselves aren’t the problem, either. Those have to be meticulously reported, even if they aren’t subject to the same strict limits that donations to individual candidates are – though they ought to be, if only for the sake of consistency.

What is afflicting our current campaign finance system isn’t PACs, campaigns or donation limits. Instead, it’s the politically active “dark money” nonprofit organizations, operating at both the state level here in Maine and at the federal level nationally, that are the big problem. Principally 501(c)(4) social welfare and advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) business organizations, they are the worst of both worlds: There are virtually no limits on how much money they can raise, under either state or federal law. They also don’t have to disclose any of their donors, because they’re organized as nonprofits.

Now, one might argue that corporations don’t, either, but in fact the source of their money is very simple: corporate profits. If you don’t like the political donations that a corporation is making, one can organize a boycott of that corporation – as long as the donations are adequately reported by whoever receives them. You’ll know if a big corporation decides to donate to a PAC, or a candidate, or a political party, because they have to report it, but you’ll never know if they give millions of dollars to some political nonprofit.

Politically active nonprofits don’t quite have the same freedom to act as other political organizations, like PACs and political parties. Just like any other organization incorporated as a nonprofit, they can’t donate directly to a candidate or to a partisan campaign for office. They also may neither directly endorse individual candidates for public office, nor be blatantly partisan. While that is indeed a restriction, it’s not much of one: It’s relatively easy for dark money nonprofits to engage in political activity. They can lobby lawmakers, engage in issue advocacy, register voters and be involved in referendum campaigns – all without revealing where their money actually comes from.

If we really want to start plugging one of the biggest holes in our campaign finance system, it’s time to start cracking down on these political nonprofits. At a minimum, they ought to be required to disclose their donors and be subject to donation limits. Then we will know not only when one of their donors is accused of a crime but also more about the organization itself.

That would be a positive step forward for both Maine and the country that would truly limit the influence of individual donors in politics – and not just when it’s a convenient talking point after they’re accused of a crime. Neither party is interested in taking this step, of course, because they benefit way too much from the status quo to actually be interested in proposing real changes.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.