October 25th, 2010
11:59 PM ET

Dirty Politics: Opening Pandora's cash box

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Editor's note:
Watch AC360°'s special investigation into "Dirty Politics" this week and get Tom Foreman's take on the dirtiest ads, the dirtiest races, and the dirtiest campaign trail moments of this midterm election cycle.

Washington (CNN) - To hear big Democrats tell it, the Republicans have assembled a secret army of check writing ninjas sneaking millions of untraceable dollars into the election, even now creeping through the political night to wreak havoc.

Big Republicans have a different take: The Democrats are a bunch of sore losers.

And if you ask independent analysts, they’ll give you a third read: Both parties are obeying the law, yet hiding the hypocrisy behind what some consider the single dirtiest trick of this election.

First some background. The issue of anonymous donors using outside groups to push voters to or away from any given candidate has been heating up for years. It works kind of like this: If Candidate A decides to run for Congress because he’s really had it with the influence of big oil companies, those same companies can spend millions to attack his positions and suggest Candidate B is a better choice, and if they do it through the right type of perfectly legal group, the company never needs to risk public knowledge that it was behind the effort. Actually a much noted Supreme Court ruling earlier this year said such companies and individuals could also take such actions quite openly, but that’s another part of the story. There is some fine print, but not much.

Suffice to say President Obama, who you may note has made a lot of powerful enemies among business folks, was an early critic of the Supreme Court ruling and he still is. You may recall his public dressing down of the Supreme Court members at this State of the Union address. “The court,” he said, “reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."

That said, he is beating on the broader topic of “secret money” as he campaigns for Dems across the country, and top presidential advisor, David Axelrod, suggests when these groups gin up for Republicans, he has no doubt that they are putting their thumb on the scales while hiding the source of their influence from voters. "They say, trust us, trust us,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley on State of the Union, “everything is cool, everything is kosher, don't worry about it, but we're not going to disclose. Let me tell you something, (when) people don't disclose, there's a reason."

A favorite target for the Dems has been their old foes from the Bush years, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, who are now hooked up with a big money group in this game called American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS. In one particularly caustic ad from the Democratic National Commitee, those two were lumped in with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Over menacing music and dark pictures, they are called “shills for big business…stealing our democracy; spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress. It appears they’ve even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections.”

The Chamber emphatically denies that last part. “None of the money that goes into our election activities is from foreign sources,” says Tita Freeman, the Chamber’s Vice President of Communications and Strategy. As for the idea of it being “secret money” she says “We have been very clear on our reasons for wanting to protect the privacy of our donors.” What she means is, that many businesses fear the repercussions of taking a public stand on policy…from say consumers or vindictive lawmakers…and yet they feel they have to speak up on issues that may adversely affect their own success.

As for the folks at Crossroads, the Communications Director there, Jonathan Collegio, says the Dems are displaying a “huge double standard.” For example, he says, the Dems have their own groups with secret donors funneling money to their side, and deep support from labor unions, which are not always wildly clear about when they are backing an ad. So this business of cashing in on backdoor money? Collegio says Democrats “obviously have no problem with it when they’ve done it.”

And that’s really the whole problem. As a practical matter, complaints about runaway spending from unknown sources are always loudest from the losing side. When either party is winning, or expecting a win, that party argues that the shadowy figure behind the curtain is merely a harmless friend. Only when he springs out and chooses sides, do they declare that a monster is loose.

Updated: 9:17 pm

Filed under: 360° Radar • Raw Politics • Tom Foreman
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Chester

    Sure, blame the Republicans...thats easy, but wait, don't the Democrats solidly control the ENTIRE Congress (House and Senate) and the Executive Branch and much support in the Judicial. Also, I remember seeing Palestinian donation banks for our President in 2008 getting donations all over the middle east. So go ahead and blame the Republicans, that is like me blaming my children for having problems at work.

    October 26, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
  2. Mike B.

    I know democrats love spouting how they tried to pass a law requiring campaign funding be transparent, but what they convent for them to forget to mention all the exceptions to those rules that they wrote in to cover their donors back sides. And most of those donors seem to be huge Unions.
    I know allot of the unions out there are legit and the leaders have their members welfare as their top priority, but allot of the unions out there are corrupt from 50 years of back rooms deals and secret handshakes with politicians, police and anyone else in power that can help them shovel some of that money they take in to their personal accounts.
    My personal belief that is in order to be able to donate any money at all you have to be a voter for the election you wish to fund. What I mean is if i want to donate money to the democrat candidate for congress in Alabama, I must be a registered voter in Alabama. If we were to get to this level then the local politicians would actually start caring what their voting members have to say instead of the corrupt unions or greedy corporations.

    October 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  3. Annie Kate

    Since anyone or any corporation, business, etc. can contribute money to the political campaigns, there ought to be a time before the election that all parties disclose what money they have given, how much and who to. While they probably will not want to do this, they have to disclose to the IRS during tax time so why not the American public before the election so we can see just who is trying to dupe us into voting for their interests instead of our own?

    October 26, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
  4. Got2 Respond

    All you bigshots who make a living writing pablum opinions don't get it. The "Citizen's United" decision by this ultra conservative group of Supreme Court Justices (injustices I call them)has enabled "Big Business" and America's 2% wealthiest individuals to cloud political issues with overwhelming Ads of "Big Lies" framing issues that benefit them exclusively in terms to persuade or fool the general public into believing it benefits the general public. Please don't give me the free speech argument. when one side can afford and uses a gigantic megaphone to drown out the other side who can can afford to only yell as loud as they can. You are watching the beginning of the end of Democracy in the United States.

    October 26, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  5. Yup

    The Dems wanted a bill cut in their favor that excluded Unions. Foreign money is bad but I don't want unlimited funds coming from Unions which destroy our economy. If we want reform lets come up with something that truly levels the playing field.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
  6. Michael Garto

    I saw this segment on 10/25, comparing AFSCME funded ads to these shadowy groups who are funding Republican candidates' ads. This is a clear false equivalency. Anyone who wants to know anything about AFSCME just needs to google the name; not so for these right-wing attack ads. They may have an organization name show up at the bottom of the screen for 2 seconds, but if you try to track down who they really are, you're going to come up empty-handed. That's the whole point.

    For Anderson Cooper to sit by and allow this sort of sophistry to be displayed, without comment, on his show is disgraceful.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  7. Kenneth Close

    I know you reporters love this stuff, but I know even you agree these elections have gone over the top.

    October 26, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  8. Caspian

    Why should the Democrats reveal their donors and open themselves up to speculation when the Republicans refuse to? The Democrats tried to create a law that would force both parties to reveal their donors but the Republicans fought hard and prevented this from happenning. So Anderson, let's be clear about this. Let's be truthful and honest. Did the Democrats try to create some transparency? Yes. And why were they unable to?

    Something else to consider. Citizens United. Democrat? Or Republican?

    October 26, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  9. Rand Eller

    Saw the TV segment related to this post on your show yesterday comparing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)funding of political ads to what Karl Rove's American Crossroads is doing and stating that AFSCME is "hiding" behind its acronym. I think this is both wrong and misleading and not worthy of your usual standards of journalism. Anyone willing to do even a little research will understand that AFSCME is funded by the thousands of government workers that provide services to our citizens every day and has been standing up for the rights of these working class Americans since 1932. Just because we don't know the specific identity of each of those people doesn't make them "secret". If you want to know who they are, just look across the counter next time you apply for a marriage license or drivers license. This is far different from the contributors to American Crossroads that, we can only guess, represent the wealthy and privileged in American society.

    October 26, 2010 at 8:54 am |
  10. Wahle Peoples

    This was one of the most poor analyzed segments that I've seen recently on this topic. There was no discussion of the basic points of contention regarding this discussion,i.e., the lack of transparency for the funds being used by these new organizations. Tom did not do any analysis of the complaints about the transparency issues and simply presented another false equivalence about both parties doing it. Also, you can google "AFSCME" and find out anything you want to know about the organization. This segment failed basic journalism 101 – the public was not informed about the subject matter at all.

    October 26, 2010 at 2:32 am |
  11. Winston Anderson

    Shame on you Anderson. There may be hypocrasy in this years elections but tonight you were not being honest in your "Keeping them Honest." I worked for the city and state for more than 25 years and was a member of AFSCME, I paid my dues and the union backed me when I got hurt on the job. We know exactly who AFSCME is, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. So to say we don't know exactly who they are is an outright LIE. On the other hand it has been fact checked that the money pouring into the Republican Party ads come from the exact same account that accepts donations from abroad. Answer me this, if you had two employers and both paid you through direct deposit into the same account, how could you keep the money separate? How could you be sure when you wrote a check to pay for your grocerys or your gas bill which employers money was being spent?

    October 26, 2010 at 2:06 am |
  12. J.V.Hodgson

    In all of this I have to say only one part of your presentation really came down to anything with real meaning:-
    it was Dems $100m Republicans $200m.
    After that the only remaining unasked question re comments being made by both sides is, who is the bigger hypocrite? I'll leave it your esteemed viewers and our American voters to decide.
    And the chamber of commerce hides behind meaningless words( both sides do) of Foreign sources. E.G. a compamy incorporated in the US,
    But owned 70% by a say UK pharmaceutical company and 30 % US shareholders put/fund a negative ad out via these special Pacs (who dont have to say who gave the money) against Health care or a candidate who voted for it. Is that foriegn money!?

    October 26, 2010 at 1:38 am |
  13. andre

    Why doesn't this story have the chamber disclose their contributions. It seems that they are getting a pass. CNN of all people know that they are not required under the worst decision in US History. It allows unlimited cash contributions by corporations on politics. Why doesn't the chamber disclose the names. CNN is becoming a voice of the Republican Party by not conducting itself in an unbiased way. I am loosing my faith in CNN as a news outlet and know starting to see it as an arm of the conservative Republican media machine. Why don't you feature other groups like, Move-on, Organizing for America, Americans for Progress, Working Families, Public Policy Institute? The threat to democracy is real and CNN should spend some time asking key questions and not simply say the Democrats haven't shown proof. Has the Chamber disclosed the donors? What are they hiding and why aren't CNN asking them and keeping them honest like Anderson Cooper says he is doing?

    October 26, 2010 at 1:37 am |
  14. Dave

    Tom Foreman is NOT... "Keeping them honest". His RIDICULOUS commentary had nothing to do with REALITY. The union dues pay for the ads of a frickin' UNION. No one knows who contributes to the Chamber of Commerce or to ANY of Rove's organizations.

    Come on! We are NOT STUPID!

    October 26, 2010 at 1:36 am |
  15. Karin Taylor

    Do you really think we should take the Chamber's word when they say no foreign money is being poured in? The head of this group has publicly said that shipping jobs overseas is a good thing and they get money from foreign sources with an interest in this. You don't think this is a danger to our country's economy and our democracy? This money all goes into a fund that is not separated formally, so there is no way of knowing how it is being spent, and the Chamber refuses to disclose these donors'names and countries and be open.

    October 25, 2010 at 11:47 pm |
  16. Russ Thompson

    Shameless: Your characterization of the anti Angle ad in NV. was shameless: AFCMSE is not a government union: It is a private, public employee and municipal employees' union. Employees' unions are not even apples to the oranges of special interest corporate and private hedge fund funding groups behind funding of ads. You are NOT being fair!

    Russ Thompson
    Lummi Island WA

    October 25, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
  17. Chuck

    Anderson you left out something very important. The Democrats tried to pass a law that would require transparency for all. The Democrats, like the American people, believe that both parties should be transparent. But the Republicans prevented this from happening. Why? Because Big Corporate America is their base. They con a lot of people into thinking that they are part of their base, like the religious cult right, the militia types, and the racist types etc....but their true base is the super wealthy.

    Well guess what? Now that the Republicans have prevented transparency, the Democrats will also have to start bowing down to the Corporatocracy. Far more than ever now. They have no choice. But they tried to stop it.

    Who was responsible for Citizens United? Come on, Anderson. Let's start keeping them honest.

    October 25, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  18. Karyl Miller

    Just watched your piece on secret $ contributions to the midterms. To say Dems and Repubs are equal in dirty money spending is total hogwash. Repubs have spend 4X as much and YOU know it! Only a fool would buy your cool aid. Unfortunately, they're the ones who are just coming around to thinking about voting. Heaven help us!

    October 25, 2010 at 11:37 pm |
  19. J Travers Devine

    Mr. Foreman – how can you say the left is hiding behind the acronym AFSCME? Anyone who has been active in labor, managment, business and/or politics knows that AFSCME is the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees AFL/CIO and have been active in every State in the Union for at least 50 years.

    Love them or hate them, you have to be a political idiot not to know who they are.

    October 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Dan W from Illinois

    Nice piece but the key part of Axelrods interview was that the Democrats tried to make these contributions transparent the Republicans oppose this I think that is an important part of this story that your reporter convienently left out

    October 25, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  21. Eugenia - San Francisco

    Pandora's box is an artifact in Greek mythology. The "box" was actually a large jar given to Pandora ("all-gifted"), which contained all the evils of the world. When Pandora opened the jar, the entire contents of the jar were released, but for one – hope. Today, opening Pandora's box means to create evil that cannot be undone.

    quite the comparison mr. foreman

    October 25, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
  22. bill r

    all politicians are corrupt period!!

    October 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm |