WASHINGTON — Anonymous campaign cash is as much a fixture of American politics nowadays as yard signs and awkward photos of presidential contenders eating corn dogs. Dark money may have existed well before Citizens United, but that 2010 Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for untraceable money to soak our elections. It also left voters clueless about who was putting up the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by groups with anodyne names like Priorities USA and Americans for Prosperity.
One of the most infamous players in the dark-money game was an outfit by the name of Americans for Job Security. Founded by a Republican political operative close to Rick Perry, Americans for Job Security acted like a laundromat for wealthy donors. Instead of giving directly to a candidate or campaign and having their names disclosed, they donated to Americans for Job Security, which scrubbed their identity and spent their millions to elect Republicans across the country and push right-wing policy proposals. The group dropped $5 million in 2010 to elect dozens of new House Republicans and another $15 million in 2012 to try to defeat President Obama. It also funneled tens of millions more to state-level campaigns, including to fund the opposition to two 2012 California ballot measures to raise taxes on the very rich and weaken labor unions.
On Friday, the mystery of who bankrolled Americans for Job Security was finally solved. After losing a seven-year legal battle, the now-defunct group revealed where its money had came from — a rare victory for clean-government groups and an even more rare glimpse at the internal workings of a dark-money juggernaut. According to documents turned over to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Americans for Job Security’s donor list is a who’s-who of 1-percenters.
The biggest givers include: Investor Charles Schwab ($8.8 million); Amway co-founder and Christian conservative mega-donor Richard DeVos and wife Helen ($2 million); Peter Thiel, the libertarian investor and Trump supporter: ($500,000); casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam ($500,000).
Other notable names on the donor rolls are Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former Trump cabinet secretary Linda McMahon, and members of the Fisher of the family that co-founded the Gap. The donor list also features major corporations including oil and natural gas companies Continental Resources ($1 million) and Devon Energy ($3 million), U.S. Sugar Corp ($750,000), casino conglomerate Wynn Resorts ($500,000), and Quicken Loans ($250,000).
Still, even with the new disclosures, the actual source of much of the group’s funding still remains unclear. Americans for Job Security lists as donors other nonprofit groups like Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, Wellspring Committee, and the Koch-aligned Center to Protect Patient Rights. Think of these groups as all part of a daisy chain of nonprofits used to funnel secret money into elections.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, tells Rolling Stone that this is the first time that the courts forced a major dark-money group to open its books after running afoul of the nation’s campaign finance laws. “There has been this history of abuse post-Citizens United where a lot of these groups have been spending the vast majority of their money to influence politics, which is not something you’re allowed to do without registering as a political committee and disclosing your donors,” he says. “We’ve finally gotten to a place where the law was enforced.”
Bookbinder also notes that Hensel Phelps Construction, which has received billions of dollars in government contracts over a period of decades, gave $2.9 million to Americans for Job Security in 2010. At the very least, Bookbinder says, the disclosure of Hensel Phelps’ donations shows how companies with a direct financial stake in government policy have tried to influence the lawmakers who shape that policy while leaving the public in the dark.
Dark-money groups have poured nearly $1 billion into U.S. politics since 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest spenders range from the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity on the right end of the political spectrum to Majority Forward and the League of Conservation Voters on the left. The data show that right-leaning dark-money groups have outspent left-leaning ones in the past four election cycles.
Neil Reiff, a campaign finance lawyer who represents candidates and nonprofit groups, says he expects CREW’s legal victory over Americans for Job Security to serve as a cautionary tale for other dark-money outfits. “If the courts are moving the goalposts, I think people running outside groups are going to take notice — absolutely,” Reiff says.
To stem the tide of dark money, Democratic lawmakers have introduced multiple bills but each one of those has languished in the U.S. Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Earlier, this year all 47 Senate Democrats threw their weight behind the For the People Act, a package of anti-corruption reforms similar to those passed by the Democratic-controlled House. McConnell has blocked that legislation as well.
Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a freshman member, introduced the End Dark Money Act as his first piece of legislation, which would reverse a Republican decision to defund the IRS’s efforts to dark-money nonprofit groups more transparent to the public. Crow says the influence of unlimited and undisclosed campaign money is an issue that comes up in town halls and constituent meetings but also among his colleagues in Congress who fear retribution from anonymous donors if they step out of line if they defy the president or the party leadership.
“Regardless of whether we’re talking about health care, gun violence, or climate change, so much of this goes back to the corrupting influence of money in politics,” Crow tells Rolling Stone. “We’ve got to clean up that system. These dark-money groups are a huge component of that.”