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Use of dark money draws speakers’ comments, concern in Chesterfield

Although not on the agenda, current developments in election politics and campaign financing drew similar views from two apparently unrelated sources during the public comment period at the May 7 Chesterfield City Council meeting.

Wendy Geckeler and Jenny Potashnick, both Chesterfield residents, commented respectively on the introduction of dark money into the recent Chesterfield municipal election campaign and the need for a constitutional amendment that would, in effect, overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case that upset existing campaign finance laws.

Chesterfield Councilmember Tom DeCampi [Ward 4]

Geckeler accused the Missouri Century Foundation [MCF] of spending money on behalf of Tom DeCampi in his race to win re-election to the Ward 4 council seat. She claimed it was the first time an outside group had tried to influence “our local election.” [West Newsmagazine also received and printed, on May 2, a letter to the editor from Chesterfield resident Mary K. Brown on this topic.]

As a 501[c][4] nonprofit organization, MCF can receive unlimited donations, commonly known as dark money, and spend those funds to influence elections involving candidates or causes without having to disclose the identity of its donors. The practice is legal as long as there is no coordination with the candidate, a provision that, according to some critics, provides a loophole big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through.

Geckeler said DeCampi had made transparency in government a campaign promise but failed to disavow support from MCF, which she said actively opposes legislation requiring political nonprofits to disclose their donors.

Referring to past elections, Geckler said, “The average good person [in Chesterfield] wanting to serve could run for election without undue expense. One ran for office on a level playing field – until last April.” She asked all those running for office to “immediately and firmly” disavow support from outside groups “seeking to support their candidacy.”

Geckeler said the MCF support for DeCampi took the form of campaign literature mailed to Ward 4 voters and robo telephone calls.

Asked after the meeting to respond to Geckeler’s comments, DeCampi said he had done nothing inappropriate in his re-election campaign and did not know what MCF had spent in supporting his candidacy.

Because current law permits the practice, he said there’s no conflict between his belief in transparency in government and having support from an organization not required to identify its donors.

While such activities are legal now, they might not be if the constitutional amendment being advocated by Potashnick’s area chapter of American Promise becomes a reality.

The Chesterfield resident described American Promise as an organization that wants to get big money out of politics by passing a 28thamendment to the U.S. Constitution. She cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission as a key factor in the big money trend.

The Court’s controversial 5-4 ruling prohibited the government from restricting independent election expenditures for communications by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations, declaring that free speech and money were effectively the same.

“Since then, we’ve all seen dark money groups and super PACs unleash a flood of money into elections,” a trend that has made “politicians on both sides of the political aisle … more and more dependent on donors and less and less dependent on their constituents. And that’s a problem,” Potashnick said.

At the state level, Gov. Eric Greitens also has been criticized for his involvement in launching a dark money organization after he had campaigned for transparency in Jefferson City and an end to shady political practices.

The proposed 28thamendment would reverse that trend and not be dependent on a particular administration or even the Supreme Court, Potashnick said.

She said the idea that people, not money, should govern the nation has “overwhelming public support.” She cited research data from the Bloomberg news organization showing 80 percent of Americans want the Citizens United decision overturned. She added that the concept enjoys broad support from those identifying as Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Emphasizing the role money plays in the election process, Potashnick pointed to a Washington Post study reporting that the better-financed candidate wins 91 percent of the time.

Nineteen states have passed resolutions or have approved letters calling for Congress to take steps to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling, Potashnick said, adding that nearly 800 cities across the nation have done likewise. She urged the Chesterfield City Council to join that number.

After her comments, Mayor Bob Nation asked Councilmember Barbara McGuinness [Ward 1] to place the issue on the agenda of the next Finance and Administration Committee meeting. McGuinness chairs that group.

Initially, McGuinness appeared to question the assignment but later told West Newsmagazine, “We’ll be happy to take a look at it.”

McGuinness said she is “loathe to touch anything affecting free speech” but at the same time firmly believes in “full disclosure and full transparency.”

In separate interviews, both Geckeler and Potashnick said they were pleasantly surprised by the other’s coincidental expression of similar views at the same meeting.

 

 

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