The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 9, 2013

John Sullivan, guest columnist: Legal leverage over funding process

By John Sullivan
The Joplin Globe

— The orgy of spending on the national level that resulted from the Citizens United case and its progeny has to be stopped if we are to maintain any semblance of our democracy. How to go about reversing this situation is the topic of a recent Politico op-ed piece by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

In addition to promoting the reversal of the Citizens United ruling, Schneiderman promises increased scrutiny of these so called not-for-profit entities that exist for the sole purpose of channeling political funding toward campaigns, with assured secrecy to their megabuck donors. Schneiderman has the responsibility of stewardship over not-for-profit corporations in New York and those who do business there.  He is going to require disclosure of funding sources and expenditures of these ostensibly public-purpose entities, and he has the subpoena power to do it. This is an important and courageous first step on the road back to political sanity when it comes to financing our political system.

There are those who will oppose him and accuse him of overreaching. They are wrong. He is doing his job as attorney general to oversee the nonprofit community, whose political intrusion has been unsupervised and unregulated until now. In so doing, Schneiderman is taking a chapter out of the playbook of one of his most renowned predecessors, whose use of a little-known securities regulation law allowed him to step in to ensure accountability on Wall Street in a manner not previously seen.  The Martin Act was used by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to uncover criminal shenanigans and other unprecedented chicanery in the financial industry.  Spitzer’s actions foretold of the problems that ultimately resulted in the financial collapse of 2008, which was predictable given the excesses he uncovered. Spitzer’s efforts earned him the moniker “Sheriff of Wall Street.” Schneiderman could become “Sheriff of the Electoral Process” and begin to bring us back from the lawless Dodge City that our political finance system has become.

Invoking the principle that sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, Schneiderman is going to require disclosure of donations by groups that spend more than $10,000 in any given year on political activities. This is a trailblazing, bold step and one which Schneiderman’s fellow state attorney generals would do well to emulate. That goes for the U.S. attorney general as well, whose timidity in this arena has been disappointing.

The power to subpoena is a vital element in uncovering the nefariousness of some of these purported nonprofit organizations, and it might also be used to disclose that there has indeed been “coordination” between campaigns and super PACs, which would be a violation of the law, even if the sanctions for such activity are unclear. There are other laws that could be invoked to police the electoral financing process, including federal mail fraud and conspiracy statutes.

In sum, we are not completely powerless in the fight against this cancer of the electoral funding process. We don’t have to just sit by idly wringing our hands and decrying the mess that the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and other cases have wrought. We can do something about it, and Schneiderman is leading the way. Kudos to him.

To the other attorney generals in the country: Will you stand with him? Will you heed this clarion call to clean up our broken electoral financing process, or will Schneiderman be a lone wolf crying out in the wilderness of the wild western like ways of our election financing process?

John Sullivan lives in Pittsburg, Kan. He is a former New York assistant attorney general.