Herald-Leader Editorial

Peek into murky campaign finance: PAC that aided Williams shows flaws

June 13, 2013 

The slick, seedy world of campaign contributions is not safely quarantined in Washington.

Restoring America, an independent political group, drew the ire of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance after allegations that it shielded the identity of its major contributor to Republican nominee David Williams in the 2011 gubernatorial election.

Terry Stephens, the revealed contributor and stepfather to Williams' now-ex-wife, gave $4.1 million to the group — a gargantuan amount dwarfing the recently announced $4,500 settlement for not filing a timely campaign finance report.

"It can look really sinister, but it's not. ... We operated in good faith," asserted Eric Lycan, an attorney who represented Restoring America before the KREF.

Lycan said the group mistakenly followed the federal IRS timeline that would have allowed disclosure filings by January, after the election, rather than Kentucky's deadline of October, before the election.

Voters should know who the financiers of these candidates are before elections, because contributions often equal access.

In a post-Citizens United era of unlimited super PAC contributions and anonymously funded dark-money groups, the fact that such massive floods of money are not only legal but spreading to influence state elections ought to raise alarm.

The June 25 special election for the vacant House seat in Kentucky's 56th district has drawn more than $50,000 from a Washington-based super PAC on behalf of Republican candidate Lyen Crews.

Pro-business special interest groups have developed a newfound interest in state legislative races, where thousand-dollar contributions now could yield anti-labor legislation that saves contributors millions of dollars in the future.

Crews did not solicit the assistance, but the donation is emblematic of the disturbing trend that seeks to make elected officials beholden to contributors rather than constituents.

Already, members of Congress are expected to spend four hours a day fund-raising instead of legislating. After all, 90 percent of Senate and House races are won by the candidate with the largest war chest. The money game privileges the already privileged, leaving out those who cannot put up jaw-dropping sums.

Stephens, a successful businessman, wasted millions on Williams, who was trounced in the election. But his gifts were small change compared to the hundreds of millions spent by Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers on the national scale.

Mandated finance filings are the only reason the public knows about the profligate spending.

Incredibly, there are now 501(c)(4) groups, named for the section of the tax code under which they are organized, that can influence elections without revealing any of their donors.

The next time a person, corporation or union wants to buy an election, there will be even less transparency than there is now.

The broken campaign finance system, riddled with loopholes visible to any reasonable person, needs to be reformed to eliminate the uncomfortable closeness of well-moneyed contributors and our elected officials.

And what will become of Restoring America after licking its wounds from the 2011 election and settling the Kentucky case?

It's already being retooled as a super PAC, allowing it to accept corporate donations.

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