'Dark money' bill's real aim is blacklisting, radio hosts say
An Illinois Senate bill that proponents say would close a "dark money" loophole in political campaigns is actually intended to undermine constitutional freedoms for all IRS-designated nonprofit policy organizations, the co-founders of one such agency said during a recent radio broadcast.
"What this really is trying to do is chill freedom of speech, chill freedom of expression," Dan Proft of the Illinois Opportunity Project said during the Chicago-based radio talk show Illinois Rising. "That's the bottom line."
Proft is a principal of Local Government Information Services, which owns this publication.
Sens. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and Sam McCann (R-Plainview) introduced SB2089 in the Senate on March 16. If passed, it would require disclosure of political donations to IRS-designated 501(c) entities.
An op-ed piece in the Chicago Sun-Times supporting the legislation specifically mentioned the Illinois Opportunity Project as a so-called "dark money" donor. The op-ed piece said the Illinois Opportunity Project provided backing in last year's general election to the unsuccessful campaigns of now former state Rep. Ken Dunkin and Jason Gonzales, both Democrats.
"When campaign donations are secret, voters don’t know if elected officials are putting the electorate first or simply paying back big donors," the op-ed piece said. "That’s not healthy for democracy."
"It's a terrible idea, Dan," Illinois Opportunity Project co-founder Pat Hughes said during the broadcast. "People should be allowed -- and they are allowed -- their rights under the First Amendment and their rights to freely associate, to contribute to causes that they believe in, without some sort of reprisal or repercussion. Harmon and McCann and the Sun-Times who wrote a piece this week, the reason they call it sinister dark money is because they want donors to these nonprofits to be disclosed so they can go after them, so that they can intimidate them."
But Hughes and Proft’s organization would not be alone.
"This isn't some selective protection of free market or conservative-oriented policy organizations," Proft said. "This applies to the Sierra Club, Moveon.org -- pick any organization on the left that's a 501(c)3 or a (c)4, (c)5, (c)6 – they have the same protections."
Hughes talked about the history of the 501(c)4 exemption and its use in free speech protections.
"It was established in the 1950s in the segregated South, specifically in Alabama," Hughes said. "There was an NAACP chapter there that was being, of course, supported privately because the NAACP was a nonprofit at the time. And there was a law in that state where the people who were, well, let's just put a word to it – racists -- wanted to out people, white, black or otherwise, who were supporting the NAACP so they could intimidate them. And you know that's real intimidation, Dan. That's not Dick Durbin intimidation. I'm talking about the segregated South, Bull Connor-type intimidation. And the Supreme Court said, 'No, these people are allowed to affiliate with this organization so they can believe in and support a cause without it being disclosed so their enemies can out them or terrorize them or anything else.’ ”
Hughes said the legislation would benefit two prominent Democrats in Illinois government: Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Mike Madigan.
"The reason that Harmon and the Sun-Times is so Jonesed about this, Dan, is because they believe in the political power structure where the money offloads off through the public sector unions and the trial lawyers and into the pockets of John Cullerton and Mike Madigan," he said. "And what the Illinois Opportunity Project and others who are in this space do is we compete on the battlefield of ideas against those groups. So what they want to do, in our state, they feel it's to their political advantage to put as much pressure on their competitors as possible."
That left-leaning groups also would suffer is a calculated decision, Hughes said.
"In the wake of that, there's going to be leftist groups that are going to have their donors disclosed, too," he said. "But these folks have made a calculation that, for their own political gain, they're willing to lose that so they can keep ceding more and more power into the unions, into Madigan and into Cullerton. It's a conscientious decision, and that's why it's so bad."