The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

November 14, 2012

Big spending and anonymous speech

By Scott Mooneyham for the SNAP

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 — RALEIGH – When Thomas Paine first penned the pamphlet that helped inspire a revolution, he did so anonymously.

Common Sense was initially signed “written by an Englishman.”

I suppose that anonymity might provide some justification for the anonymous political speech that we see today, where big campaign donors can hide behind independent expenditure groups.

Paine, though, had a bit more reason to exclude his name from the pamphlet. As a treasonous tract, it might have cost him his head.

A pamphlet of another sort recently crossed my desk via email.

It was from the state chapter of the Federalist Society, a group of conservative lawyers and legal scholars that argues for a stricter reading of the law.

 The report sought to justify increased spending in judicial campaigns, arguing that it allows voters to know more about the candidates.

It reaches that conclusion against the backdrop of the current state Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Paul Newby and challenger Sam Ervin IV. It is a contest in which Newby’s candidacy will have received as much as $2 million in support from outside spending groups by Election Day.

Ervin has attacked the spending as a threat to judicial independence.

The report points out that there is little anecdotal evidence showing that judicial offices have been corrupted by either direct campaign spending or that from outside groups.

Doing so, it glosses over how a coal mining executive’s $3 million in support of a West Virginia judge was found by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court to have compromised the judge’s ruling in a subsequent case involving the company. But I digress.

The report also states: “Disclosure requirements enable citizens to know who is involved in each super PAC.”

Really? Well, let’s see.

Super PACs do have to report their donors each quarter, but as the Newby outside spending shows, that requirement doesn’t necessarily equal transparency.

The primary super PAC supporting Newby, the NC Judicial Coalition, has received the bulk of its money from another super PAC, Justice for All NC. Most of its money came from a larger national political committee, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which distributes money for a variety of state races and collects money from a variety of donors from around the country.

That North Carolinians know that longtime GOP activists like retailer Art Pope are behind the effort is largely a function of the fact that Pope and others have made no bones about the matter.

Nonetheless, with court rulings undermining campaign donor limits and corporate campaign spending restrictions, it wouldn’t be difficult to push million dollar donations through enough corporate entities and enough super PACs to hide the fingerprints.

And why even use super PACs? Nonprofits will do.

 Another group, Civitas Action PAC, spent $150,000 supporting Newby’s campaign with radio ads. Its money came from two nonprofits that aren't required to disclose donors.

One is a Washington-based group called Judicial Crisis Network, which keeps its donors secret.

Funny thing is, the other is an organization called the Federalist Society.