Gore’s Secret Donors

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A recent New York Times story brings news of Vice President Gore's evolvingviews on campaign finance regulation: "Peter Knight, Mr. Gore's chieffund-raiser, said some of the money for the Gore recount fund had come fromlarge donations by wealthy people, but he declined to name them."

You may recall that we had a modest debate this past summer about the roleof undisclosed contributions to so-called 527 groups. Such groups raisedfunds from anonymous contributors to support issues ads during this year'selections.

You may also recall the avalanche of attacks on such anonymous fundraising.

  • The Washington Post called for complete disclosure and suggested defendersof anonymous giving were "in love with the dark."
  • Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) noted that secret contributions were thelatest source of corruption in politics, a "dangerous invitation to scandal."
  • Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), sponsor of a bill to force disclosure of 527contributions, argued that "our political system is being polluted withsubstantial amounts of secret contributions and secret expenditures used toattack candidates."
  • The editorial writers of the New York Times decried 527 groups as "shadowytax-exempt organizations that are secretly raising and spending unlimitedsums of money to influence federal elections."
  • Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) equated the secretive activities of some 527groups to "certain evils in our society," including murder, rape androbbery.

Indeed, Gore himself called for disclosure of the officers and finances ofSection 527 organizations as part of his proposal for new regulations oncampaign finance. Gore called such groups "the equivalent of Swiss bankaccounts for campaigns." Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced adisclosure bill for 527 groups. And that leading expert in politicalethics, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, affirmed, "The only issue that matters iswhere the money is coming from. That's the main public interest here."

This hysteria -- and what else to call a period when funding issue ads iscompared to murder, rape, and robbery? -- led to a law requiring disclosureof contributions by 527 groups.

At that time many across the political spectrum raised doubts aboutdisclosing contributions from 527 groups. They worried whether disclosingcontributions would chill freedom of speech and association. They noted thatanonymous giving protects the privacy of the contributor, thereby precludingretribution by political enemies. And they recalled Justice Harlan'sadmonishment, "Inviolability of privacy in group association may in manycircumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association,particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs."

Gore and his contributors now seem to recognize the value of anonymousgiving, as well they might. Imagine a wealthy individual committed to Goreand willing to support his bid for a recount. Let's say he learns that hiscontribution will be disclosed. Here are the questions crossing his mind: IfBush wins the presidency, will I be the target of political retribution?Will that deal with my Republican business partners still go through? Willmy name be published in the newspaper? Clearly disclosure would have achilling effect.

Gore may yet disclose the contributors to his recount fund. After all, hehas enough public relations problems at the moment without charges ofhypocrisy. But advocates of campaign finance regulation should be demandingfull disclosure right now. If anonymous giving is as much of a threat toAmerican democracy as they and Gore said last summer, any secret giving --especially by wealthy individuals -- should be immediately brought into thesunlight to ward off corruption in the struggle for Florida. (Can we lookforward to a New York Times editorial demanding disclosure of the sources ofthe recount fund?)

I believe Gore's donors have a right to contribute anonymously to hisefforts in Florida. Privacy of association and protection from retributionfor political commitments are important American values. What I can'tstomach is a double standard on the part of campaign finance reformers whobrayed about 527s but thus far have been silent about Gore's secret donors.