Editorial: Dark Money probes should not be sidetracked by politics
When Jason Chaffetz dropped off his filing papers with the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office the other day, he did more than become the favorite to win a fourth term as the 3rd District's member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He also emerged as a good bet to head up the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Here's how that could be a good thing.
Chairman Chaffetz could ease up on the Fox News-friendly investigation of the Internal Revenue Service and start investigating the real problem that the IRS was, or should have been, looking into.
It's called Dark Money. And the recent The New York Times coverage of the case made it clear that growing use of tricks used to evade disclosure laws was what made the fall of former Attorney General John Swallow a national story.
Between a change in IRS rules and the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, state and federal laws that are supposed to make the flow of campaign money transparent to the voters have been widely evaded by the explosion of what are known as 501(c)(4) organizations. Those are nonprofit corporations that supposedly exist for the purpose of promoting, by one means or other, "social welfare."
Those organizations enjoy distinctions that overtly political fundraisers do not. Donations made to social welfare outfits are tax deductible. And social welfare organizations are not required to make public the sources of their income.
Suspicion that groups organized under Section 501(c)(4) were phony, that they were simply a cover for funneling political donations through secret and tax-free channels, are well justified and led the IRS to audit many of those groups to see that they were what they said they were.
Though the allegation that all of those investigated had conservative or tea party ties is demonstrably false, many of those groups were on the Republican side. And they include, of special interest to Utahns, a outfit called the Proper Role of Government Education Association. That group, according to a recent Utah Legislature report, was used to sneak funds from the payday lending industry to Swallow's campaign, in return for Swallow's promise to protect that sleazy dodge from both state and federal enforcement.
The media-savvy Chaffetz is understandably eager to wield the tool of the oversight committee, which he has accurately described as key to our system of checks and balances.
Those checks and balances, though, include campaign funding disclosure laws. The IRS should be enforcing those laws, and Chaffetz should lead, follow, or get out of the way.