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The Skinny

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DARK MONEY, PART 1

As election 2012 reached the end of the campaign trail, the California Supreme Court took a major step toward untangling the flow of some "dark money" through independent committees.

Dark money is the name for big-dollar contributions that don't show up on campaign-finance reports. There's always been some degree of it in American elections, but the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened a floodgate with its ruling that corporations and nonprofits couldn't be barred from spending on political activity.

As a result, we've seen a lot more money from anonymous sources, leading to more TV ads, mailers, robo-calls and other efforts to persuade voters one way or another.

A California Supreme Court decision earlier this week, however, has forced one Arizona-based nonprofit group to reveal where its funding came from.

Americans for Responsible Leadership, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, dropped $11 million into campaigns against two California propositions: a tax-hike measure, and a proposition that would hamstring labor unions from raising money through paycheck deductions.

California's Fair Political Practices Commission filed suit to find out where that money was coming from. The California Supreme Court said Americans for Responsible Leadership had to turn over the records, so the Arizona nonprofit revealed that it had gotten the cash from the Center to Protect Patient Rights, which in turn had gotten the money from Americans for Job Security.

In a press release, the Fair Political Practices Commission said that the "failure to disclose this initially was campaign money-laundering. At $11 million, this is the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money-laundering in California history."

So who is behind Americans for Responsible Leadership? It describes itself as a group that "seeks to promote the general welfare by educating the public on concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics and related public-policy issues."

Just a thought: If they're going to be laundering money for other dark-money committees, and they're refusing to reveal who is providing the money that keeps them in business, they might want to drop that whole part about "ethics" and "transparency."

Anyway: Among those behind Americans for Responsible Leadership, according to records from the Arizona Corporation Commission: You've got Kirk Adams, the former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives who lost a congressional primary earlier this year, as the president of the group. Directors include Eric Wnuck, who lost a 2010 congressional run, and Robert Graham, a one-time gubernatorial candidate who is seeking the chairmanship of the Arizona Republican Party.

And who did they get the $11 million from? The Center to Protect Patient Rights is a 501(c)(4) run by Sean Noble, a former congressional aide and a GOP political strategist who aided Adams in his congressional campaign. The Center for Patient Rights, according Bloomberg.com, moved more than $30 million to other Republican-leaning nonprofits and political groups in the 2010 election cycle.

The Center to Protect Patient Rights originally got the $11 million from Americans for Job Security, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that—of course—does not disclose its donors.

It's a tangled web, indeed—and there's another Arizona connection: Americans for Responsible Leadership also dropped $900,000-plus into the campaign against Proposition 204, the sales-tax proposition that was on this week's ballot. Amusingly enough, that money went to complaining that the proposition was the work of "special interests."

We may never know the source of those funds, which just tells us that Arizona needs to work on developing stronger disclosure laws.


DARK MATTERS, PART TWO

On the local level, Pima County has its own dark-money game afoot, with Arizonans for a Brighter Future, the nonprofit "business league" that hammered away at Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson and supported her GOP challenger, Tanner Bell.

As we've noted before, Arizonans for a Brighter Future is the brainchild of Mike Farley, a Tucson business investor who got crosswise with the county over plans for an intersection-improvement project at Kolb and Valencia roads, where Farley would like to build a shopping center.

We're filing this particular column too early on Election Day to say whether Arizonans for a Brighter Future's efforts managed to unseat Bronson. But Farley has steadfastly refused to reveal the names of the donors to Arizonans for a Brighter Future, saying that they are members of the business community who fear retaliation from the Board of Supervisors and county officials should their names become public.

We can tell you a little bit more about who was involved in the campaign in recent weeks, however, based on campaign-finance reports that were filed last week.

(As an aside, we'd like to point out that having the Friday before the election as the final deadline for disclosing campaign-finance reports is a terrible date that does little to allow the press to inform the public about who is funding these campaigns.)

Arizonans for a Brighter Future has been putting its money into another committee, Restoring Pride in Pima County. That committee, which is also headed up by Farley, has been targeting Bronson. We now know that between Sept. 18 and Oct. 25, Restoring Pride to Pima County spent more than $120,000 on its campaigns (although not all of that was focused on the Bronson-Bell race).

We also know a little bit more about the donors. Besides Arizonans for a Brighter Future, which put more than $97,000 into the campaign, the Restoring Pride committee also received dollars from auto-dealer Jim Click ($25,000), as well as $10,000 from a group of shopping centers owned by Republican National Committeeman Bruce Ash.

How important was this advertising to Bell's effort to unseat Bronson? Well, he certainly needed the help, since he raised less than $35,000 for his campaign as of Oct. 25, while Bronson raised more than $96,000.

As we've also reported in recent weeks, Bronson filed a campaign-finance complaint against Bell and Arizonans for a Brighter Future, saying that Bell had failed to report several expenditures for his campaign, and that he had illegally coordinated with Restoring Pride in Pima County. Without getting into all of the details, we'll just mention that Bell had been using TagLine Media as a campaign consultant, but TagLine dumped him in order to work on the Arizonans for a Brighter Future campaign. In addition, there were no expenses listed on Bell's campaign-finance reports for a fundraiser and tailgate parties that Bell had attended.

TagLine, Bell and Farley have denied any coordination.

Bronson's complaint—as well as a similar complaint filed by Democrat Nancy Young Wright, who was facing Republican Ally Miller (who was mixed up in similar accusations involving TagLine and independent committees)—was sent back to Pima County last week by Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who said the county had proper jurisdiction over such matters.

Brad Nelson, who heads up Pima County's Election Division, has forwarded the complaints to Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.

We'll see whether LaWall will actually investigate the claims. If she's reluctant to do so because she has to work with the Board of Supervisors, she should—at the very least—send them off to another county attorney to review the charges.

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