The Slatest

Judge Reveals “Dark Money” Donors

Volunteers roll up a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the Constitution during a demonstration against the Citizens United ruling at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in October 2010

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The 2012 presidential campaign has seen spending by outside groups on political ads reach an unprecedented level, much of it on political ads, the most vicious of which are often funded by so-called dark money: untraceable funds given by anonymous donors. Unlike super PACs, the groups receiving the bulk of that cash, so-called “social welfare nonprofits,” are allowed to keep their donors secret forever.

Well, at least that had been the case until this past Friday, when a Montana judge granted a request by ProPublica and PBS Frontline to release the bank records of one such group, the Western Tradition Partnership, on the grounds that citizens have a right to know where the campaign cash was coming from.

ProPublica and PBS did the heavy lifting, so we’ll let them tell you what that means:

It was the first time that a court has ordered a modern dark money group’s donors to be made public, firing a warning shot to similar organizations engaged in politics.

WTP, now known as American Tradition Partnership, bills itself as a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting environmental legislation and has worked to elect Republicans in Montana and Colorado. Providing the type of anecdote worthy of a story about “dark money,” the group’s donors apparently scrawled notes on their checks like “Stop Obama” or “Oil and Gas,” all under the assumption, we assume, that their names would never be made public.

While the mandate for social-welfare nonprofits like WTP is supposed to be helping the community at large, not covert political fundraising, ProPublica and PBS Frontline’s digging suggests that wasn’t the case in this situation:

The bank records highlight WTP’s ties to groups backing libertarian Ron Paul. The Conservative Action League, a Virgina social welfare nonprofit run at the time in part by John Tate, most recently Paul’s campaign manager, transferred $40,000 to WTP in August 2008, bank records show. Tate was also a consultant for WTP. In addition, WTP gave $5,000 to a group called the SD Campaign for Liberty, affilitated with Paul and the national Campaign for Liberty.

Although the total amount raised by WTP was relatively small compared with the tens of millions raised by super PACs like American Crossroads, the bank records illustrate how the cash transferred between dark money groups obscures the original source of the funds. As ProPublica and Frontline pointed out last month, such groups have been able to exploit gaps between election authorities and the IRS, which effectively enabled social welfare nonprofits to spend millions of anonymous dollars on political campaigns.

You can read more over at ProPublica.