Little question that the epithet “dark money” is a pejorative to describe “hidden” financial support, usually in large quantities, for political causes and/or candidates.
But why is “dark money” almost always applied to conservative or pro-business or Republican entities? How do most outlets in the mainstream news media (MSM) and the political “reform” industry handle evidence of dark money that supports liberal/progressive or Democratic Party causes?
The data showing the prevalence of pro-liberal/Democratic dark money is hiding in plain sight, but reformers and the MSM look the other way rather than report and debate it.
For instance, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Common Cause of Michigan, and the League of Women Voters of Michigan have for many years been heavily subsidized by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation. That’s the Foundation on whose board of directors Barack Obama once served, pre-presidency, back in his community organizing days. Each of these organizations has developed a niche as part of its Joyce-funded political “reform” collaborative.
Let’s focus on the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), which researches political money and crusades about the dangers of “dark” money, yet reports very little about the influence of dark money behind Voters Not Politicians (VNP) in the the latter’s 2018 campaign to amend the Michigan Constitution to “reform” Congressional and legislative redistricting.
The VNP campaign raised $16 million in direct contributions and another $4 million in in-kind contribution. Only seven contributors accounted for over $13 million of that total. In fact, just two contributors accounted for more than $11 million.
Let’s examine VNP’s top three contributors and the three stories that MCFN has somehow missed:
VNP’s top contributor, accounting for a staggering $6 million, is the innocuously named Sixteen Thirty Fund. Apparently, neither MCFN nor the Detroit Free Press editorial board has ever heard of the STF if one goes by the lack of coverage these two “watchdogs” gave to VNP’s top contributor, which was the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a Washington, DC-based 501 C (4) that in its IRS annual form 990 disclosed in 2017 that it brought in $79 million and ended the year with $43 million in assets. Its mission is cryptically worded “promoting social welfare including, but not limited to, providing public education on and conducting advocacy regarding key policies.”
In other words, STF bankrolls liberal groups from a network of large individual donors and like-minded non-profits.
STF is managed by Arabella Advisors, a Washington, D.C., philanthropy consulting firm run by Eric Kessler, who also founded and runs the Sixteen Thirty Fund. The Fund has raised $1.6 billion in total revenue and has spent $1.1 billion since 2013.
Eric Kessler once worked in the Bill Clinton White House on environmental issues. Kessler later served as national field director for the League of Conservation Voters before launching the Sixteen Thirty Fund. The connection to the League of Conservation Voters remains strong. STF reported in its 2017 990 filing that it provided the League of Conservation Voters for that one fiscal year with a grant of $3,850,000.
In its 2017 990 filing, STF disclosed contributions or grants to three Michigan organizations — $400,000 to Michigan Time to Care, a corporation in Royal Oak; $221,500 to ProgressNow; and $15,000 to ProgressNow’s 501 C(3) affiliate in Lansing.
In 2018, the same year that STF gave $6 million to VNP in Michigan, STF also disclosed in filings with the District of Columbia Consumer Agency that it was the fiscal sponsor of Demand Justice and 45 other organizations that lack tax-exempt status or do not exist as separately incorporated entities. Those organizations’ IRS disclosures are run thorough the Sixteen Thirty Fund’s 990 filings. After the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy two years ago, Demand Justice launched a website called “Ditch the List,” referring to a list that had been put together by the Federalist Society of possible Supreme Court nominees who had the Society’s seal of approval during the 2016 presidential campaign.
After the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Kennedy was announced, Demand Justice is credited with assembling a brigade of protesters to attend the public hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination. One protester after another shouted out protests against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Each protester would be removed by capitol police from the hearing room only to have another protester disrupt the hearing and be removed. Some 200 protesters were expelled from the room over the first three days of hearings.
Might there be a Michigan protest connection to VNP’s third largest contributor, one Kathryn Murdoch of New York City? She contributed $500,000 to VNP. Murdoch is President and co-founder of the Quadrivium Foundation along with her husband, James Murdoch, the son and perhaps ideological opposite of his 88-year-old father, Rupert Murdoch, the mogul of the media empire that he built.
Quadrivium Foundation has five focus areas: democracy, technology and society, scientific understanding, climate change and ocean health. Quadrivium states on its website that “democracy” is the foundation for progress on every issue it cares about. On the same website, Quadrivium reports that it has worked with an organization called Represent US to support efforts on redistricting and “automatic voter registration.” Represent US launched initiative petition drives this past decade to provide public financing via “voter vouchers” in municipal elections in cities such as Seattle, WA, and Tallahassee, FL. A similar initiative in Michigan’s capital city of Lansing, funded by Represent US, failed to get on the ballot in 2013 when the city clerk ruled it ineligible under the city charter.
Then, in 2018, Represent US in July placed full-page newspaper ads in the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and in Lansing’s tabloid City Pulse attacking the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and its chairman and executive committee members. These attack ads used the members’ names, photographs, and the identity of their private companies, denouncing them because of the Chamber’s support of litigation challenging the VNP proposal that was then before the Michigan Supreme Court. According to the Detroit News, those attacks included threats of violence, boycotts and calls to harass the Chamber’s volunteer leaders.
The second largest contributor to VNP was the Action Now Initiative (ANI) with direct and in-kind contributions totaling $5,002,580.59. ANI is a 501 C (4) started by Houston, Texas, billionaires John and Laura Arnold. John made his fortune as a hedge fund manager trading in natural gas. Arnold started his own firm, Centaurus Advisors, in 2002 after his former employer, Enron, went bankrupt. Arnold retired a billionaire in 2012 at age 38.
ANI’s focus has been on pension reform; obesity; supporting local taxes on soft drinks; and political reform. ANI supported a ballot question on pension reform in California in 2014 and ranked choice voting in Maine in 2016 and 2018 that succeeded in electing a Democrat even though he didn’t finish first.
In 2018, the ANI contributed over $5 million to VNP in Michigan, $1 million to a redistricting initiative in Missouri, $1 million to a redistricting initiative in Utah, and $600,000 to a redistricting initiative in Colorado.
Liberals/progressives are quick to use the label “dark money” to demean their opposition. VNP says it started out as a Facebook post. Its petition drive, it boasts, was purely grassroots-driven. Those claims might have been true at the outset, if not later, but VNP insists it has always been “bipartisan” and that the 13 commissioners called for in Proposal 2 will employ criteria that will produce three “fair” redistricting plans (110 State House districts maps, 38 State Senate districts maps and 13 congressional districts maps).
But that number 13 is the same number as the 13 contributors who made contributions of $100,000 or more to VNP to sell Proposal 2 to Michigan’s voters:
Sixteen Thirty Fund: $ 6 million
Action Now Initiative: $ 5,002,580.59
Kathryn Murdoch $ 500,000
Stacy Schusterman $ 500,000
SEIU-United Healthcare Workers $ 500,000
Seth Klarman $ 250,000
National Democratic Redistricting Committee $ 250,000
Beckwith Constitutional Liberties Fund $ 150,000
National Education Association $ 125,000
Green Advocacy Project $ 100,000
Michigan UAW-CAP Council $ 100,000
Open Society Policy Center $ 100,000
Jonathan Soros $ 100,000
Are these contributors simply looking for non-partisan or bipartisan good government?
Or will they be sorely disappointed if Proposal 2 doesn’t deliver what they expect — a reincarnation of the 1972 Hatcher-Kleiner Democratic gerrymander of Michigan’s Congressional and legislative districts?
Pat Laughlin says
Excellent disclosure Bill. In a democracy the quality of decision making is directly related to the amount of information available to the decision makers. This information has NOT been available to the decision makers!
Steve Mitchell says
Thanks,Bill, Very important information!
Linda Dagenhardt says
Thank you for posting this. It is difficult to find out who is donating to these organizations.
Eric Petersen says
Great investigative reporting ! Thanks for shining a light on that dark money !
Jason Gillman says
The video I produced in 2018 opposing proposal 2 outlines pretty much those same players.
I wonder if you’ve seen it?
Ed Haynor says
Great reporting, since “dark money” from any source, political or otherwise, should see the light of day.
So, now that we know that both democrats and republicans do it, what are Michigan citizens going to be doing about it, since according to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan ranks last in laws on ethics and transparency?
One troubling thought though, regarding this report by Mr. Ballenger, is where did he get his sources for his report? Is he truly trying to enlighten us by his diligent research, or is he fronting for various right-wing groups, who actually provided him much of this information, just to get even with progressive groups?
Duane Brown says
Interesting information and if true, always appreciated. Bill is a republican so I always take information with a grain of salt when it comes from a member of the opposing political party, no matter which political party the reporter supports. From the information presented, it appears that money from progressive groups goes towards positive environmental, quality-of-life, and fairness issues. From what I’ve read over the years, money contributed to conservative causes tends to go towards special interests and those politicians that support special interests, much to the deterement of the common person.
Eileen Kowall says
I’m kind of curious about the “Michigan Time to Care” in Royal Oak. Any way to find out who’s affiliated with this corporation?
Damon Lieurance says
Excellent article! Great information.
Matt Crehan says
WOW! Quite the eye-opener! But why am I surprised? After all, the left makes a career of whining, moaning, and howling like a stuck pig even if some poor soul like Larry Inman botches up what 147 other individuals in Lansing do every day; these 147 just do it with a bit more tact. Money is the lifeblood of politics and more grease moves the wheels of power with ease. It should come as no surprise that the left has become much like an insatiable drug addict who is never satisfied and can’t seem to get enough. Except with left, there are no rules for them, just for anyone who opposes them. So what will it finally take to stop this madness? Articles like this are good for starters, as the people reading have enough interest in politics to effectuate some sort of change for the better. The best way, of course, is to prohibit any payment for collecting ballot signatures. (This just means that the left will pay its minions in cash) Another method is to prohibit any out-of-state funds from being spent to influence a ballot proposal here. (This just means the left will funnel the funds to in-state groups) A better idea is to boycott all the advertisers who utilize main-stream media to get their message across. This will preclude the one-sided journalism that is prevalent today. Who actually believes that the Red & Blue Detroit rags are really competitors? Most of the stories are identical; only a few of the opinion pieces are somewhat different. In the final analysis, neither is truly independent. Both are subservient to the same clique that are the culprits behind the curtains. If the monster in our midst starves to death, its corpse will be laid bare to rot in the hot sun!
Thanks, Bill. Dark Money is clearly an important topic. But, by my definition, the contributions which you describe in detail are not “dark money” contributions. Dark money contributions, to me, are those which cannot be traced to the individual donors because of a variety of laws and regulations which effectively shield the identity of the donors from public disclosure. Your column itself discloses to your readers who are the donors–and gives us a lot of info about them.