The Ups and Downs of Turning the Spotlight on Dark Money Donors

Nonprofit Quarterly | September 17, 2018

Nonprofits that give funds to political campaigns seem to be everywhere. Who are the funders who put their money into these 501c4s? These nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors, and because of this, whether on the right or the left (yes, they do exist on both sides), their funds have earned the moniker “dark money.” But last week, a federal appeals court in California ruled that two groups, both conservative charitable foundations, will have to turn over lists of their top donors to the California attorney general. Bringing even more clarity to the “who’s who” of dark money, Issue One, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization focused on political reform and government ethics, issued a report, “Dark Money Illuminated,” that profiled the top 15 dark money organizations and their donors. In addition, Issue One has developed and made accessible, through their website and ProPublica, a searchable database of nearly 1,200 transactions related to these dark money actors. Taken together, there seems to be a crack in the wall of anonymity of dark money donors. The California court case will not bring any names to light, but it will be a thorn in the sides of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Thomas More Law Center, which must now disclose the names of their major donors to the state attorney general. These are the same names they provide to the IRS, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued he needed these names to ensure that none were involved in fraud. The judges found this request reasonable, since the attorney general cannot reveal the names of these donors. The charities’ arguments that revealing the names would impact donors’ giving was given short shrift by the court. In a statement last Tuesday, Becerra said the reason for the disclosure requirement was simple: “Our mission is to protect Californians who donate their hard-earned dollars to charity. Charities operating in California must not engage in fraud or unfair business practices.”

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