Sunday column: Dark money flows in TN from inside, outside the state

Dark money flowed into several Tennessee campaigns in the election season recently ended, some darker than others but all indicating — along with some other factors — a trend toward anonymity in politicking that apparently follows national inclinations.

And maybe it works, so we can expect more in the future.

In other recent election cycles, dark money — funding where the donors are undisclosed to the public — has generally come from national organizations. StudentsFirst, for example, reports in Tennessee only that six-figure chunks of cash came from the national headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., then was spent bashing state legislative candidates or local school board candidates who don’t support the “education reform” organization’s agenda or supporting those who do.

Who gave the national group that money? Well, under existing rules, nobody really knows, though national media have reported some generalities such as hedge fund operators.

This year also saw some homegrown dark money, typically using the completely legal ploy of a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation. Set one of those up — they’re known as education and advocacy organizations — and you can raise money without disclosing where it came from. Then the 501(c)4 corporation can give the money to an actual campaign committee, which will then report only that it got money from the nonprofit 501(c)4.

Some examples:

Amendment 1 to the state constitution, which clears the way for the Legislature to enact new abortion restrictions, was substantially funded by the Yes on 1 Ballot Committee, a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation set up to raise money. Opponents of the amendment, known as No on 1, took the more conventional route and reported raising a couple million dollars from Planned Parenthood affiliates nationwide. The “No on 1” disclosures became a talking point for “Yes on 1,” denouncing the out-of-state money. But where did “Yes on 1” money come from? Only insiders know.

Similarly, proponents of Amendment 2, dealing with judicial selection, got most of their money, about $1 million of the total of about $1.4 million spent, according to the latest disclosures (with a final report in January) from the Tennessee Business Partnership, a 501(c)4 set up in February to promote business-friendly policies in general. Who funded TBP? Only insiders know.

With far less money, a political action committee named Strong and Free Tennessee was set up shortly before the August primaries with $35,000 to spend from a 501(c)4, established at about the same time, apparently for the sole purpose of giving anonymous money to the PAC. The PAC spent its money on trying to elect establishment Republicans to the Tennessee GOP’s State Executive Committee and oust tea party types.

State Rep. Rick Womick, who is challenging Beth Harwell’s re-election as House speaker, and former state Rep. Joe Carr, who is challenging Chris Devaney’s re-election as state Republican chairman, have both cited Strong and Free as an example of secretive GOP establishment attacks on the more conservative elements. Womick contends Devaney was behind the effort. Devaney says he was not.

Who’s right? Nobody knows, except, of course, those insiders.

Also denounced by Carr and Womick was a more traditional PAC, set up just before the August primaries to attack legislators sympathetic to the tea party wing with six-figure spending. That PAC, Advance Tennessee, disclosed its donors, and they are pretty much all connected to Haslam and his education agenda. As a matter of political strategy, the PAC would have been perhaps better off to have a good ole 501(c)4 in place. Then the denunciations could have been dismissed as wild speculation instead of having a publicly disclosed factual basis.

The Tennessee trend toward anonymity has not been confined to money. On the media front, consider Rocky Top Politics, an anonymous blog that bashes Haslam and the GOP establishment in entertaining, sometimes vicious, fashion. Status quo Republicans briefly tried a pro-establishment anonymous blog, Volunteer Politics, that has apparently gone defunct after only a few posts — one attacking Womick as a clown. Rocky Top Politics views Womick as a hero.

Personal responsibility and accountability? Well, maybe that doesn’t work anymore in politics.