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Norm Coleman: A Case Study in Wielding Power in the Dark

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Norm Coleman has decided to join the cadre of former senators now employed as “senior advisers” for Washington lobby shops. We call his ilk non-lobbyist lobbyists. Tom Daschle is the poster child for this group of important influence peddlers in Washington who, due to a quirk in the law, don’t register as lobbyists or report their activities. Others include recent exiles from Congress such as Evan Bayh, Bob Bennett and Gordon Smith.

But what makes Coleman special is that in addition to his role as a non-lobbyist lobbyist, he is the chairman of the American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) group that shielded donors from disclosure while spending $20 million on electioneering ads during last year’s election.

As the chairman of AAN, Coleman knows who donated money to ad campaigns that favored conservative candidates. The public doesn’t. As a non-lobbyist lobbyist, Coleman knows whose interests he represents before Congress. The public doesn’t. He can encourage his corporate clients at his new firm to contribute to ANN. He can decide the political races in which ANN will run ads. He can let his former Senate colleagues know that, either as a favor or as a threat, AAN will spend heavily for or against their re-election campaigns.

Efforts to uncover dark money contributions to elections through legislation failed. Even a modest effort by the Obama administration to require disclosure of dark money by government contractors is being met with vigorous opposition by groups representing corporate donors.

Efforts to uncover more about lobbying activity have only just begun. (You can receive updates to Sunlight’s work on lobbying disclosure here.) The case of Norm Coleman illustrates that when hidden money collides with undisclosed influence a handful of moneyed interests enjoy the benefits while the rest of us are left in the dark.