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OFA--A Dark Money Group by Any Other Name

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Organizing for Action (nee Obama for America), the campaign committee that morphed  into an outside money haven, is trying change its image from a that of dark money group selling access to the president to a squeaky clean issues-centric organization.  But this is a tiger that can’t change its stripes.

After pushback from the reform community, OFA today reversed course, announcing that, “we have now decided not to accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors.” This is a far cry from initial reports that not only would OFA take money from corporations, it might do so in exchange for meetings with the President.  It also begs the question:  Was OFA originally planning to take money from foreign donors?  We’ve long argued to an apparently indifferent political class that foreign money could easily be laundered through the dark money system that evolved after the Citizens United decision.  OFA’s announcement is at least tacit acknowledgment that foreign money can easily find its way into our political process.

But with today’s announcement that OFA will limit who it takes money from and that it will disclose donors of $250 or more on a quarterly basis, why aren’t we applauding them for seeing the light?

OFA’s Disclosures are neither Timely nor Complete

As long as OFA is making up the rules as it goes along, there is no reason it shouldn’t meet or surpass the disclosure requirements that apply to political parties. Disclosure delayed is disclosure denied, and the quarterly reporting of donors promised by OFA allows them to hide donors—at least temporarily—in an age when technology could easily facilitate real time online disclosure.  Moreover, OFA is not disclosing details normally associated with political contributions—specifically the address, occupation and employer of the donor that not only help identify the donor but the industry or interests that might be important to him. There is no disclosure of bundlers either—a big donor could deliver a fat wad of checks to OFA from his fat cat friends, and while OFA’s chairman and former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina will know who to thank, the public will remain in the dark.

OFA is a Mechanism for Fat Cat Access

Messina took great pains to address the unseemly specter that OFA is a vehicle to sell access to the president to the highest bidder, stating, “we can't and we won't guarantee access to any government officials.” But while he did not guarantee access, nor did he rule it out.  Quite the contrary.  “Just as the president and administration officials deliver updates on the legislative process to Americans and organizations across the ideological spectrum, there may be occasions when members of Organizing for Action are included in those updates.”  Will the members of OFA who give $50 be included in those updates, or only the members who give $50,000 or $500,000?

There is no Accountability

Under OFA’s “voluntary” system of disclosure, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure that big money donors will be disclosed, or whether the group is sticking to its commitment to prohibit corporate and foreign contributions. There is nothing to prevent a CEO from writing a big check to OFA, only to be reimbursed from her corporate coffers—laundering a corporate contribution. The only legally enforceable rules that apply to OFA are the same ones that apply to every other dark money 501(c)(4) organization—and we know how well those work.

OFA is the Antithesis of Campaign Finance Reform

In his 2010 State of the Union Address the president vociferously decried special interest money taking over our elections:  “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign companies -- to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”

OFA, by design, will “open the floodgates for special interests” to be “bankrolled by American’s most powerful interests,” with only Messina’s word that it will not accept corporate or foreign contributions.  It’s an end run around what remains of the current campaign finance system, giving donors an option to avoid the limits and disclosures that apply to contributions to political parties and PACs.  It is another sad example of the Obama team’s willingness to funnel more money, not less, into our political system.

The Obama administration should be trying to clean up the current campaign finance disaster by making passage of the DISCLOSE Act a priority, by naming an IRS commissioner committed to new rules that would shut off the dark money spigot, and by replacing FEC commissioners with individuals willing to enforce rules that enhance disclosure. Instead of working toward reform, however, his team has created a new tool for moneyed interests to buy access and influence in our political system.