Senator who benefited from secret money suggests FEC failure to enforce the law is good
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), one of the senior Republicans on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee that will mark up legislation next month that aims to overhaul America’s campaign finance, voting, and government ethics systems, has made it clear he is not a fan of the effort. It’s probably no coincidence that Shelby himself, whose last re-election campaign was boosted by hundreds of thousands in undisclosed money, has benefited from loopholes in the law that the legislation seeks to close.
In comments to the New York Times, Shelby took aim at the bill’s proposed changes to the regularly gridlocked Federal Election Commission, calling it a “mistake” that would trigger further partisan warfare. But Shelby didn’t just attack what he believes the consequences would be of the For The People Act’s reforms to the FEC, which includes lowering the number of commissioners from six to five in order to prevent tie votes. He defended the status quo, suggesting it might actually be a good thing that the commission frequently is unable to agree on the enforcement of campaign finance rules. “Maybe they don’t need to,” Shelby said. “Most things are disclosed, and you all are sure watching,” referring to news outlets like the New York Times
Except, of course, there’s a whole lot that isn’t disclosed. As OpenSecrets reported last month, more than $1 billion in dark money — spending aimed at influencing political outcomes where the true source of the funds is kept secret — was spent on the federal level during the 2020 election. As CREW, which has regularly sued the FEC in order to spur action against dark money groups, knows all too well, questions about whether to investigate anonymous political spending represent one of the primary areas where the FEC regularly deadlocks.
Shelby should know full well that large sums of campaign funds go undisclosed. When he was last re-elected in 2016 he benefited from hundreds of thousands spent by nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose who is funding them. The lack of disclosure was noted at the time, with the headline on HuffPo’s story about the pro-Shelby dark money declaring, “No One Knows Who’s Behind This Senator’s Re-Election Campaign.”
In particular, in January 2016, a nonprofit run by Republican political operatives called Citizens for a Sound Government made two contributions, a week apart, totalling $400,000 to Citizen Super PAC. The super PAC subsequently spent more than $350,000 on independent expenditures boosting Shelby and attacking his opponent in the “tougher than expected” primary election he was facing. Citizens for a Sound Government followed the super PAC contributions by spending $412,975 on an electioneering communication mentioning Shelby, which appears to have been a TV ad that praised the incumbent senator for opposing an executive order on guns signed by then-President Barack Obama. Despite spending more than $800,000 to benefit Shelby’s reelection campaign, the sources of Citizens for a Sound Government’s funding remain undisclosed.
Shelby also benefited from at least $140,000 in radio ads paid for by One Nation, a nonprofit organization with close ties to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), that praised his “consevative principles.” One Nation reported spending $3.4 million on independent expenditures to the FEC during the 2016 election, but that number does not include the pro-Shelby ads since they did not use express advocacy language and were broadcast just long enough before the primary that they did not need to be reported as electioneering communications. In other words, the spending, along with the sources of One Nation’s funds, went undisclosed.
The lack of disclosure has continued since Shelby, who is retiring, faced his last election. According to OpenSecrets, One Nation spent $125 million on political contributions and ads targeting candidates during the 2020 election. None of the ads were reported to the FEC and the true source of the money is undisclosed because One Nation purports to be a social welfare organization rather than a political committee.
The FEC, which only recently regained the quorum necessary to take action on enforcement cases, is also still deadlocking on dark money matters. Earlier this month, the commission disclosed that it had closed the file on a complaint against a politically active nonprofit organization that spent millions of dollars over multiple elections without proper disclosure. The FEC’s Office of General Counsel, which took more than three years to complete its report on the allegations in the complaint, ultimately recommended that the commission find reason to believe that the nonprofit failed to register and report as a political committee. But the commissioners deadlocked 3-3 on the recommendation before dismissing the case in an exercise of prosecutorial discretion supported by four of the six commissioners.
In other words, the FEC appears to be working just as Shelby wants it to as millions in political spending goes undisclosed.