Why a Case Against a Dark Money Charter School Group Is Great News for Democracy

In one of the most important decisions ever about dark money in politics, a Massachusetts charter school advocacy group has been ordered to make the names of its donors public, and pay the largest campaign finance fine in state history. The case is likely to reverberate across the nation.

This week, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) exposed the charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, not as the education reform group of its own masquerade, but as a dark money front designed to hide millions in contributions from plutocrats. The donors, who sought to keep their identities secret, spent big on a ballot question to dramatically expand charter schools in the state; voters rejected it by a wide margin in November. 

OCPF reached a Disposition Agreement with Families for Excellent Schools that required the organization to register as a ballot committee and to admit that it had raised (and spent through the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee) over $15 million from donors “without disclosing the contributors, and by providing funds to the GSM Committee in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the contributions.” (Press release here).

“Intended to disguise the true source of the contributions.” Marinate in that phrase for a bit.

Families for Excellent Schools was the money behind the Great Schools Massachusetts Committee. The “families” involved were a collection of billionaires and near billionaires few enough to fit in your kitchen. Many of them are connected to the Boston based charity Strategic Grant Partners which has been covertly funding the push for school privatization for the past several years. And still is; money never sleeps.

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy paid a record fine to OCPF and formed a ballot committee to list its contributors, so now citizens can see who really spent all those millions to influence their votes last year. On the list: Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune; Jonathan Sackler, whose family owns Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin; Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Paul Sagan; and a who's who of hedge fund managers and financial executives. As part of the settlement, also agreed to dissolve as a 501(c)(4) organization (a type of dark money operation). Its sibling organization, Families for Excellent Schools Inc., is barred from engaging in political activity in Massachusetts for four years.

FESA did not admit to the “facts” (their quotation marks) and I’ll get to their response another day, but it boiled down to, ‘hey, we paid big bucks to a really important DC law firm and they told us to launder money to our little hearts content.’ Okay maybe for laughs just one line of FESA’s response: “Donors making contributions to FESA did not intend to disguise the source of contributions intended for the GSM Committee.”

Are they kidding? The entire reason to give to FESA was to keep their identities secret. I know FESA almost got away with this, and I know they continue to think of Massachusetts voters as a bunch of dummies, but that line goes too far.

And why, you ask, is it important for the donors to keep their identities secret? It’s because, as political science research shows, if voters know that the real folks behind this idea are not poor families eager to improve their children’s schooling but billionaire financiers, the voters apply a deep discount to the message.

A case like this takes enormous resources and the courage to follow the facts to some of the richest and most powerful people in Massachusetts, even inside the Baker administration. OCPF deserves a world of credit for this – talk about Bill Belichik’s “do your job” mantra – but it’s more than that. OCPF defended democracy itself. That is magnificent and humbling at the same time.

We can’t have a functioning democracy if public policy is given over to the rich and the citizen can’t even find out who is spending all that money to influence our votes. In all the time I’ve written about dark money in Massachusetts, I’ve never seen a single – not one – credible rationale for keeping millionaire contributors’ identities safe from public scrutiny.  The Citizens United Court wrote that “The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.”

If citizens have a right to hear, then we have a right to know who is speaking to us. That’s what OCPF upheld yesterday.

It was a great day for Massachusetts and a great day for democracy.  

This post originally appeared on the Mass Politics Profs blog

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