Arizona Capitol

Arizona Lawmaker Takes On 'Dirty Money' Establishment — Again

Campaign spending in Arizona could get a lot more transparent if Ken Clark gets his way — though he admits it's a long shot.

The Democratic lawmaker, who represents Phoenix in the state House of Representatives, has introduced a bill that would require corporations, limited liability companies, and labor organizations to disclose when they make large political donations to political action committees.

Under HB 2049, those groups would have to register with the Secretary of State (or the appropriate city or county clerk) and provide their names and addresses, as well as the names, titles, email addresses, and telephone numbers of the individuals who are authorizing the contribution.

Currently, they're not required to do so as long as they're in good standing with the IRS.

The rule would apply for any donations of over $5,000 in statewide races, or over $2,500 in legislative races.

Clark says it's a reaction to SB 1516, which he refers to as "the Dark Money Act of 2016."

"They rewrote the whole campaign finance statute to make it so that you can hide dark money all over the system, which I maintain affects not only the legislature but also your small town city council," he told Phoenix New Times. "Some entity from out of state can come in and overwhelm the people who are running for office at the local level."

We've already seen this happen in California. Last year, Los Angeles witnessed the most expensive school board elections in U.S. history — costing nearly $15 million in total — after big-money contributions from pro-charter and union groups poured in from around the country.

click to enlarge State Representative Ken Clark - KEN CLARK FOR ARIZONA
State Representative Ken Clark
Ken Clark for Arizona
Admittedly, Clark says, his bill doesn't tackle another problem often referred to as "nesting."

That's when one wealthy donor gives money to one entity, which then turns around and gives it to another entity. If that second entity gives the money to a political candidate or committee, there will be a record of that donation.

But there's no way to trace it back to the original wealthy donors, who may not want anyone to know that he or she is trying to influence the outcome of the election.

"In essence, in the political sphere, people can do what we would find abhorrent and what people would go to jail for in the corporate world — which is launder money, and then spend it for whatever kind of financial gain," Clark said.

Currently, the Outlaw Dirty Money campaign, led by former Phoenix mayor and former Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard, is trying to address the issue of nesting (also known as "the Russian doll problem") through the ballot initiative process.

Clark, who's also involved with that campaign, thinks the language being proposed for a constitutional amendment will likely be the most effective way to force groups to disclose who's funding them.

An additional bill that he's introduced, HB 2050, would require out-of-state contributors or groups to identify themselves as such when they give money to in-state corporations, LLCs, or labor organizations that are attempting to influence the outcome of an election — for instance, by paying for political ads or mailers.

"If HB 2049 were passed, this would be somewhat redundant, because you’d be able to capture that information," he said.

Clark has introduced similar bills in the past.  He admits that the chance of either piece of legislation passing this time around is "slim to none."

But, he said, "I continue to introduce these bills, knowing that the Republican legislature does not support disclosure, because I believe that it’s right and I believe that we need to continue to have these conversations and continue to keep the pressure up."

Though he won't name names, he says that he's talked to several Republicans who regret voting to pass SB 1516, and hopes that "over time, they will gain the courage to come out and support disclosure."

After all, he points out, there's ample evidence that their constituents want that transparency.

"I’ve seen polls that show that a vast majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents want more disclosure in politics," he said. "So the more that we talk about this and keep it in the limelight, I think the better chance there is that we’ll be able to do something about it."
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.