We have discovered that sometime after January of this year, the FEC deleted a whole set of contributions totaling millions of dollars made during the 2007-2008 election cycle. The most important of these files concern what is now called “dark money” – funds donated to ostensible charities or public interest groups rather parties, candidates or conventional political action committees (PACs). These non-profit groups – which Washington insiders often refer to generically as 501(c)s, after the section of the federal tax code regulating them – use the money to pay for allegedly educational “independent” ads that run outside conventional campaign channels. Such funding has now developed into a gigantic channel for evading disclosure of the donors’ identities and is acutely controversial.
In 2008, however, a substantial number of contributions to such 501(c)s made it into the FEC database. For the agency quietly to remove them almost four years later with no public comment is scandalous. It flouts the agency’s legal mandate to track political money and mocks the whole spirit of what the FEC was set up to do. No less seriously, as legal challenges and public criticism of similar contributions in the 2012 election cycle rise to fever pitch, the FEC’s action wipes out one of the few sources of real evidence about how dark money works. Obviously, the unheralded purge also raises unsettling questions about what else might be going on with the database that scholars and journalists of every persuasion have always relied upon.
On its face, this is cause for outrage. But wait until you see the information they deleted:
Harold Simmons’ contribution to the American Issues Project in 2008 is a sterling instance of what we are talking about. The Texas tycoon, with major interests in minerals and waste disposal that critics charge have been furthered by his long history of political donations, was already famous for the millions he poured into the notorious “Swift Boat” campaign that shredded John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the presidency. In 2008, he came back with what, until the September financial collapse, looked like another potential game-changer. With almost $2.9 million dollars of his money, the American Issues Project financed a television ad linking Barack Obama to William Ayres, who decades before had been a member of the Weather Underground. The ad created a sensation, with many critics questioning both its verisimilitude and its legality.
The FEC identifies, or used to identify, contributions to 501(c) 4 organizations with a code that begins with the letter C followed by eight numbers, of which the first is always a 9. We find that all such files (save for one case that plainly never belonged there) have been deleted.
I can't find words strong enough for how evil this is. How craven, how corrupt it is. I don't really care if those files were published before the Citizens United decision, you don't unring bells, and you especially don't unring bells when it concerns the integrity of our democracy.
Here's what I think. I think we had better call our Congresscritters, make a ton of noise, get petitions moving, whatever it takes to get some eyes on this and a call for each and every one of those files to be restored. Right. Now.
Update: According to the crosspost of the Alternet piece at Salon, the FEC responded via email:
In an email, the FEC stated that the absence of information in its database owes to a “technical problem.” Don Hazen, Alternet's executive editor, wrote to Salon that he had "received the FEC's explanation, but it isn't clear it is credible." We are investigating the matter.
We are delighted to see that in an official statementthe FEC backhandedly concedes our central claim: that sometime after January, 2012, important files disappeared from its bulk downloads, which are the crucial avenue for transmission of the agency’s data to the wider world. Sites and scholars relying on these downloads have in fact been seriously misled, as millions of dollars worth of contributions are no longer there. Thanks to a “technical problem,” the FEC acknowledges, “some data reported on the FEC Form 5, the Report of Independent Expenditures Made and Contributions Received, were not transmitted to the newer database” it installed. Exactly. Like the records of Simmons, Templeton, Jr., Foster Friess, and the other C9 records we named.