Hidden Money + Advocacy = Doubt


The involvement of several non-profit advocacy groups in the debate over the Air Force’s $40 billion air-refueling tanker contract highlights how important transparency is for not just the government, but also for those that ask us to trust their opinions of it.

(Quick synopsis of the controversy: Boeing won the contract in 2003, then it was suspended after an Air Force staffer was successfully prosecuted for corruption related to the deal, then Northrop Grumman and European Aeronautic Defence and Space won the contract and now Boeing is contesting that.)

One of the groups, Citizens Against Government Waste, has been recruiting others to join their support of the Northop contract, which they see as a better value for taxpayers. An opposing set groups, including Frontiers of Freedom and the Center for Security Policy, are backing Boeing on the grounds of keeping major arms contracts within the U.S.

The problem for the Washington Post reporters covering the story was that, after some digging, they found that several of the groups had taken funding from either Boeing or Northop and were collaborating with the companies on their advocacy efforts. The cynicism this practice caused was palpable in the piece:

Welcome to that special place where business and Washington intersect, where things often are not what they seem and keeping track of the players and their motives is as hard as following the aces in hands of a cardsharp… The companies have engaged top-shelf public relations specialists, opinion shapers and former military officials who now serve as their consultants. And they have enlisted vocal and sometimes stealthy support from policy and nonprofit groups, endorsements that carry the aura of integrity.

In defense of their allies at Citizens Against Government Waste, Northop noted that the group had “been actively engaged for six years in making sure that this tanker project is awarded through a fair and open competition.” Indeed, a deep search of CAGW’s website found that they were protesting the Boeing deal in 2003, well before the current dispute.

If CAGW disclosed their funding, however, their integrity – and by extension that of the entire non-profit advocacy community – would never have been in doubt. While having the speakers in any debate on the payroll of an interested party raises its own problems of trust (an issue Larry Lessig cited in the launch of his ChangeCongress campaign to remove money from congressional politics), knowing when the checks started coming in makes a big difference.

And, because transparency begins at home, the Sunlight Foundation publishes all its funders here