Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Put Black Boxes on Airplanes, not in Campaign Finance

The Container Store sells all sorts of boxes. So do Crate and Barrel, and Target, and Sears, and you can also find boxes at Office Depot or Staples. Clear plastic boxes so that you can see what's inside of them, and boxes with solid walls that you have to open to know what's in there. Each has a purpose. There is a place and time for each. If you want to put things where they cannot be seen, choose a solid box with thick walls.

Some people think campaign disclosure belongs in boxes with thick walls. After all, it's one way of obscuring their public policy objectives. For years, there have been people who have tried to hide the extent of their role in financing candidates. Illinois has long allowed corporations to give to candidates, and the public disclosure reports are littered with donations from trusts, partnerships, and other entities with complex ownership chains.

It can be very hard to tell who is making the decision to give money to a candidate. Generally, we can untangle the reports to see where the money is coming from. But when people hide boxes within boxes within shells within shrouds, it can get nearly impossible to clarify the true interests behind the contributions.

The thing is, corporations cannot write checks. People write checks. They may do so out of a corporate checkbook, but there is always a flesh-and-blood person behind every contribution listed in candidate disclosure reports.

The goal of campaign finance disclosure is to alert the public to conflicts of interest, to situations where a donor may get special treatment. That can work only when the public knows who is giving to candidates. In order for the public to trust that their government is working in their best interest, it is essential that the public knows who, precisely, is making a contribution.

Putting donations in a black box makes disclosure meaningless. If anyone can form a non-profit and use that to hide their identify, then there is no point in following the donations. Save the boxes for moving day, and protect the public's right to know.

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