Utah found itself receiving prominent mention on the front page of the print edition of the New York Times for the recently released Utah House report on John Swallow. Calling it a “nightmare scenario,” the Times described “dark money” like this:
A candidate colludes with wealthy corporate backers and promises to defend their interests if elected. The companies spend heavily to elect the candidate, but hide the money by funneling it through a nonprofit group. And the main purpose of the nonprofit appears to be getting the candidate elected.
Called “dark” because of how money is hidden, dark money has become a tool for unscrupulous candidates to attack opponents without appearing to get their hands dirty in the process.
In a bizarre bit of logic, Walter Bugden, the attorney for Jason Powers who created the non-profits used to hide the Swallow’s dark money, made the disingenuous argument that dark money was part of politics and therefore acceptable and ethical.
“Using 501(c)(4)s so that donors are not disclosed is done by both political parties,” Mr. Bugden said. “It’s the nature of politics.”
In other words, it may be scummy, but it’s okay to deceive voters because everyone does it.
Ethics legislation in the 2014 Session
It took the Utah House of Representatives $4 million and a special investigator to make public the Swallow campaign’s shenanigans public, so it was no surprise that a bevy of bills addressing the problem would be introduced and passed during the recent 2014 Utah legislative session.
- HB246 made significant reforms to campaign and government ethics, including fines for not reporting campaign contributions on time, tighter deadlines for reporting contributions closer to the date of the election, increased rules regarding lobbyists, and increased disclosures of campaign finances.
- HB394, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, requires “candidates to itemize how money from their campaign account is spent rather than being able to make lump-sum payments to consultants (as has become the practice for many campaigns) or credit-card companies for expenses.
- HB390 makes obstruction of a legislative investigation a crime.
Another bill, SB97, which would have taken up the issue of “dark consulting,” where “lobbyists quietly help elect legislators in quick mid-term campaigns to replace members who resign,” according to a Trib article on the bill, failed in the House on the closing night of the Utah Legislative Session.
Time will tell if the bills are enough. We’ve already seen “dark money” rear its head this year, and rumors are swirling among political insiders of more dark money gathering to attack targeted races.
Holly Richardson attacked with derogatory and unattributed signs
In the latter half of 2013, Holly Richardson announced her intention to challenge the current Utah House District Representative, Brian Greene, for the seat. A long time activist, blogger, midwife, mother to twenty plus children, and former state representative, Richardson soon found herself under attack by unknown parties. As it appeared in Paul Rolly’s Salt Lake Tribune column:
The day when former legislator Holly Richardson kicked off her campaign to run again for House District 57, a couple of ominous signs popped up in her neighborhood.
One crudely designed sign read: “Holly Richardson. Quitter. Liar.” The other contained a slur below her name.
The signs were placed at an intersection leading into Richardson’s Pleasant Grove neighborhood and on the lawn of the reception center where she staged her campaign kicked off. They were taken down shortly after they were noticed.
Both signs were similar to the now-infamous attacks against former Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who was pilloried in campaign fliers from a phony front group that hid its donors.
The assault on Daw prompted a number of lawmakers to call for reforms and more transparency in campaigns. Richardson has been an outspoken critic of so-called “dark money” campaigns.
The signs that Rolly does not mention–the one with the slur–were far worse, not to mention far less credible. Greene doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the signs, and Richardson laughed them off when asked about them.
Given how much the signs resemble something a teenager might assemble, laughing them off is perhaps most that can be expected. Their appearance, though, shows that Swallow’s exit from Utah politics has not removed the potential for malfeasance.
Rumors in other races
Meanwhile, other races are hearing rumors about dark money playing. The people who helped Swallow are still in business, and there are still candidates who seek their services.
More on that later.
- Salt City Throwdown: An Interview with Holly Richardson (utahpoliticohub.com)
- “On Point” with women on the Hill (hollyonthehill.com)
- A Campaign Inquiry in Utah Is the Watchdogs’ Worst Case (nytimes.com)
- Campaign Fundraising: Free Speech or Extortion? (publiusonline.com)