In record spending year, millions in election cash not disclosed

Phil Hirschkorn/CBS News

CBS News

NEW YORK On a crisp October morning, a group of high school students taped one dollar bills over their mouths as they approached the Lower Manhattan offices of JP Morgan Chase. Danielle Raskin, a 17-year-old senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High, was among them.

"Those with more money should not have a larger say in politics than the rest of the people," Raskin said. "It frustrates me that these people create policies only for profit and not for the benefit of people, which is not how government is supposed to work."

Raskin and other members of 99Rise, an outgrowth of last year's Occupy Wall Street movement, were at the offices of the nation's largest bank to protest the deluge of political spending bankrolled by undisclosed donors.

While spending by independent political groups on races for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives topped $1.3 billion this year, according to the Sunlight Foundation at least $300 million was spent by groups that are not required to disclose their donors -- so-called "dark money."

More than 100 dark money groups have been active, and overall, 80 percent of their spending supported Republicans, according to Sunlight's analysis. The top seven non-disclosing spenders backed a conservative agenda -- Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies ($70 million); Americans For Prosperity ($35 million); U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($33 million); American Future Fund ($21 million); Americans For Job Security ($16 million); Americans For Tax Reform ($16 million); and American Action Network ($12 million).

The ballyhooed super PACs, which spent at least $625 million by Election Day are registered with the Federal Election Commission and are required to disclose the sources of their unlimited funds. But the dark money groups, registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501c non-profits or social welfare organizations, do not. (They disclose only expenditures to the FEC).

"I want big companies to say how much they are giving and to whom in these elections," said Jenny Ferreiras, a 17-year-old senior at the Bronx High School of Science, who participated in the protest at JP Morgan Chase. The demonstrators had no specific evidence of bank political donations to dark money groups.

Classmate Carolein Mossel said, "It shows that the one percent can buy politicians, while the 99 percent just sit there and watch."

Mossel and Ferreiras watched as Raskin and two other young women went inside the bank's lobby and staged a sit-in. They held an American flag and a sign demanding greater donor disclosure. After an hour of refusing to budge, the NYPD arrested them.

In Washington a few days earlier, Public Citizen had left gift-wrapped boxes of fake money on the front steps of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a mock presents for the Chamber's 100th birthday.

"What the Chamber is doing is taking money from the giant multinationals around the country, laundering it, and then spending it in huge ways in election races across the country," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "We don't know which companies are behind this money. Today, we are calling as a first step for the source of that money to be disclosed."

A study by Public Citizen found the Chamber was the top or second-biggest non-disclosing outside spender in 29 of the 35 congressional races where it spent $100,000 or more.

Public Citizen also found 86 percent TV advocacy paid for by all independent groups, were negative attack ads.

Like other watchdog groups, Public Citizen has called for passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would require all groups that spend $10,000 or more on campaign communications to reveal their donors. The Senate bill died in a Republican filibuster over the summer.

"I think at the very the minimum what we need to is make sure it's all transparent," said Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who won a close battle Tuesday for a second U.S. Senate term. "So we know who's giving the money."

Tester was subjected to most of the $7.5 million in dark money ads aired in Montana, seen as a linchpin to the Senate majority Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia, were hit with millions more - with mixed results.

"I've been told that there's very few people that are making these contributions. Let's find out who they are," Tester said. "I mean, freedom of speech is great, but if we're giving freedom of speech to a hundred people and not the rest of us, that's kind of crazy."

  • Phil Hirschkorn

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