Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What Makes Money "Dirty?"

During the Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign, you’re going to continue to hear about who has more “dirty” money. Television ads are already flying back and forth accusing each candidate of raising “dirty” or “tainted” money.

Of course, candidates are free to characterize each others’ fundraising in any manner they want. But it’s up to us, the public, to cut through the rhetoric and decide what it is about money in campaigns that really bugs us. In other words, what really makes “dirty” money dirty?

(This post is going to go on a while, Hey Jude-style. I know my campaign finance screeds are more anesthetizing than an elephant tranquilizer, so I will reward you, the prospective reader, by interspersing pictures of Jessica Alba throughout. I may even throw in a little something for the ladies, too.)

Let’s start with the basics: Candidates need to raise money to broadcast their message and counter their opponent’s criticisms. Money can be raised in a variety of ways, but all of it is reported in one form or another and available for media or the public for scrutiny. The three main ways to raise money are:

Individual Contributions – These are contributions from individual citizens. When a candidate receives a contribution from an individual, the contribution is listed on a campaign finance report and filed with the Wisconsin Elections Board or the Federal Elections Commission. Individual contribution amounts are limited by both state and federal law.

Conduit Contributions – Conduits are organizations that bundle contributions from their members and send them to candidates. The contributions are treated exactly like individual contributions, with the contributor’s name, address, and amount listed. The only change with a conduit contribution is that the conduit must file a report with the elections agency reporting the total amount they have collected and sent to the candidate. There are no limits on total contributions by a conduit, although the limits on individuals still apply.

Political Action Committee (PAC) Contributions - PAC contributions are made by groups that send the candidate one check, with no individual contributors listed. However, in Wisconsin, registered PACs must also file a report with the Elections Board listing their donors and the amount of their donations. PAC contributions to a campaign are limited in both the amount a single PAC can give and the cumulative amount a candidate can accept from all PACs. The candidate must also report PAC contributions on his or her report.

As you can see, each type of contribution to a campaign is registered and reported in some fashion.

Why would laws requiring full reporting of contributions and setting limits on PAC donations necessary? Obviously, the intent is to limit special interest influence, or at least to be able to catch it if it occurs. One of the fundamental principles of open and honest government is that a campaign contribution shouldn’t be able to purchase your ability to influence the writing of new laws or any other governmental action.

The allegations of Governor Jim Doyle’s misconduct deal directly with this fundamental principle. The reason that finance laws are in place are to ensure fair dealings with government – that someone without a penny in his pocket should have as much influence as a millionaire. Yet, as proven in the Georgia Thompson trial, the Doyle Administration betrayed this principle in providing campaign contributors favorable treatment for lucrative state contracts. In fact, it was the existing set of campaign finance reporting laws on the books that exposed the scandal, which makes one wonder why so many people are pushing for a revised set of campaign finance laws.

Doyle has fired back at his opponent, Congressman Mark Green, making numerous allegations of impropriety. First, Doyle attempted to characterize contributions Green received (and has since given away) from Congressional leadership as “dirty.” Now, Doyle has called the federal PAC contributions Green shifted from his congressional account to his state account "illegal."

In the course of a campaign as expensive as this gubernatorial race is bound to be, campaigns raise millions of dollars from thousands of contributors. It is impossible for a campaign to track down the background of each contributor to determine whether they should accept the donation or not. Is it inappropriate for a candidate to take a contribution from someone that has a domestic abuse arrest a decade ago? Should Mark Green accept money from someone who likes to cut up canteloupe, drop it in his underwear, and run around miniature golf courses? (If so, he better cancel my check.)

And if someone with a questionable past does contribute to a campaign, so what? Do we want to restrict the right of political speech for those who fall under some completely subjective standard of "appropriateness?"* Doesn't it make a lot more sense for the public to be more wary of official actions that come as a result of campaign contributions than who gives the contribution? Scandals occur not as the result of a campaign accepting money from a certain contributor. Scandals are borne from actions that occur because of those contributions. The crime isn't to accept Canteloupe Man's contribution - the crime happens when he gets the official State Canteloupe Dancing contract (my fingers are crossed). And that is where Doyle has gone wrong.

Doyle's second complaint is that Green shifted PAC money from his federal account to his state account. This was completely legal at the time Green made the transfer, which has been covered well by other blogs over the past few weeks. Keep in mind, however, that Doyle isn't arguing that Green has somehow been unduly influenced by the federal PAC money he accepted. Doyle just reflexively calls it "illegal" because his handpicked Elections Board ordered Green to divest his campaign of the money.

These federal PAC contributions are funds that Green raised and reported legally. If anyone wants to look up Green's federal campaign reports, they are free to see which PACs gave him money. If anyone wants to see who gave those PACs money, they can do that, too. If anyone wants to accuse Green of voting a certain way because of the PAC contributions he accepted, that's fair game. But nobody is making those charges, which are really the only charges that matter. Why?

First of all, there's only one candidate in the race who has had a staffer sentenced to prison time for trading campaign cash for government favors. So if Doyle attempts to frame the race in those terms, he's opening himself up for a more thorough discussion of the various investigations his administration continues to face. Secondly, as long as he can direct the Elections Board to rule things "illegal," he can just use the words "Mark Green" and "illegal" over and over and hope it resonates with the voters. That's a heck of a lot easier than trying to make a realistic, plausible argument.

A campaign contribution only can be called "dirty" when official action is taken as a result of the donation. A donation in and of itself cannot be "dirty" if made legally. When Craig Adelman wrote Jim Doyle a $10,000 check, it was, to our knowledge, perfectly legal. When the books were cooked to provide the state travel contract to Adelman, that contribution retroactively became "dirty." Under this same standard, money Chuck Chvala raised in exchange for legislation was "dirty," and he ended up in prison.

If any member of the public wants to form an opinion about whether any of Mark Green's contributions are "dirty" by the aforementioned standard, they are welcome to review his finance reports and voting records. The numbers are all there, in black and white. But until someone actually makes a case that the money Green has raised has directly influenced his actions, there should be a moratorium on any attempt to equate the candidates' ethical standards.

Mark Green isn't being accused of a single thing that contradicts the fundamental intent of campaign finance law. Nobody is accusing him of official actions benefiting a contributor with undue influence, which is the reason campaign finance laws exist. Only one candidate in this race has shown a willingness to cut the public out of their right to open and equitable government in return for campaign contributions. Unfortunately for Doyle, voters are smart enough to figure that out.


*Jay Bullock at Folkbum (who I really like) is twisting himself into knots trying to tie Republicans to the Foley "scandal" based on contributions. For instance, he says congressional candidate John Gard received money not from Foley himself, but "from some people tied to the Foley scandal."

Set aside whether these PACs actually have "ties" to Foley. My point is this - I don't care if Mark Foley himself wrote the check to Gard's campaign while getting a massage from a troop of Eagle Scouts. The contribution has absolutely nothing to do with John Gard's ideals or his campaign. The only problem would come about if John Gard then wrote a bill legalizing pajama parties with 16 year old boys. (They could have the bill signing at the Neverland Ranch.)

UPDATE: Tonight, I just happened to catch this new Doyle ad where he makes a weak allusion to the fact that Green votes for contributors "instead of voting for you." This, coming from a Governor who has had an employee sent to prison for that very thing, and who remains under investigation. You have to wonder how Doyle rode a bicycle as a child with the size of the stones that he has.