I was troubled to read Bill Crawford’s recent op-ed about “dark money.” It’s not honest, it’s not fair, and it’s not transparent. Bill Crawford is lying about House Bill 1205.
HB 1205 does one very simple thing: it allows a nonprofit whose donor list has been leaked by a rogue government official defend itself in state court. The bill changes nothing pertaining to nonprofit donor disclosure or transparency already required by the Secretary of State (lines 17-19). The bill changes nothing pertaining to federal donor disclosure or transparency. (Pro Tip: State law can’t override federal law or federal regulation, including IRS rules.) The bill changes nothing pertaining to Mississippi campaign finance law (lines 73-75). The bill changes nothing pertaining to a political action committee (PAC). None of these things are touched by HB 1205, and anyone who says or implies otherwise is lying.
Crawford’s first big lie is that HB 1205 is about protecting dark money. Crawford doesn’t define dark money, he just asserts that the U.S. Supreme Court allows “501(c)(4) ‘social welfare’ corporations to become fronts for dark money.”
A (c)(4) is a nonprofit organization. According to the IRS, there are 29 different types of nonprofit organizations, ranging from (c)(1)s to (c)(29)s. Are all of these nonprofits fronts for dark money? Crawford knows that if he told you your local food pantry was a front for dark money you might not believe him. So, he lies again. He claims that HB 1205 “would prohibit public agencies from requesting donor identities from 501(c)(4) organizations.”
But HB 1205 does not single out (c)(4s) for protection any more than it singles out (c)(3)s or (c)(5)s or (c)(8s) or (c)(11)s. A (c)(5), by the way, is a labor organization. Is Crawford claiming labor unions are fronts for “dark money”? A (c)(8) is a fraternal association. Is Crawford claiming the Masons are a front for “dark money”? A (c)(11) is a teacher’s retirement fund association. Is that a front for “dark money”? The options are endless for a mind wishing to see conspiracy everywhere.
Bill Crawford’s other big lie is his manipulative attempt to tarnish Gov. Phil Bryant’s reputation as a “longtime champion of transparency and accountability.” This praise seems a longtime in coming, but Crawford is correct that the governor, as well as Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, have been great advocates for transparency. What he fails to acknowledge is that the opponents of HB 1205 are seeking to weaponize transparency – and thus undermine it altogether.
Let’s think through this new kind of transparency Bill Crawford is proposing. It’s not government transparency. It’s a kind of transparency akin to forcing Jews to wear a yellow star. This kind of transparency was used by the state of Alabama in the 1950s to try to force the NAACP to release its membership list. This is not government transparency, it is government targeting. This kind of “transparency” always begins with a big lie and a will to mislead.
Real government transparency looks like the quiet work MCPP has been doing for years. No organization has done more to promote transparency in Mississippi. We were the first to post legislative votes online, leading the legislature to begin doing so. We were the first to post video recordings of the state legislative session. We were the first to post the state budget online. We have also spent thousands of hours and dollars creating the seethespending.org website. For our efforts, we won the 2012 Champion of Good Government Award, presented at an annual meeting of the Mississippi Press Association. Another site we created, seetheschoolspending.org, contains school district spending and rankings covering more than 20 years.
Yet, you’ll find no bigger advocate of donor privacy than MCPP. You see, I believe that while the government has an obligation to open up its checkbook to taxpayers, taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to post their checkbooks or credit card statements online for everyone (including employers and employees) to see. But that’s basically what the leftist conspiracy theorists want to do: permanently post donor information, including the amount of any contribution to any nonprofit, on a government website.
I trust Gov. Bryant is going to set the record straight by signing HB 1205 and protecting the right of every individual to support the causes they believe in without fear of discrimination and retaliation. In doing so, he’ll be affirming that Mississippi is still a place – unlike California or New York or Washington State – where we understand the difference between transparency and targeting.
This column appeared in the Mississippi Business Journal on March 26, 2019.