Return of the Secret Donors
The kind of secret donations that led to scandal and convictions in the Nixon era are now legal. What could go wrong?
To old political hands, wise to the ways of candidates and money, 1972 was a watershed year. Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign was awash in cash, secretly donated by corporations and individuals.
Fred Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of campaign finance regulation, was then a lawyer for Common Cause. He vividly recalls the weeks leading up to April 7, 1972, before a new campaign finance law went into effect requiring the disclosure of the names of individual donors. “Contributors,” he said, “were literally flying into Washington with satchels of cash.”
The Committee for the Re-Election of the President was also illegally hauling in many millions of dollars from corporations, many of which felt pressured into making contributions.
The record of donors was so tightly held that it was kept in a locked drawer by Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary. The list — which came to be known as “Rose Mary’s Baby” — wasn’t released until Mr. Wertheimer forced the issue through a lawsuit. Among those on the list were William Keeler, the chief executive of Phillips Petroleum, who pleaded guilty, during the post-Watergate prosecutions, to making an illegal corporate donation.
Rose Mary’s Baby itself, now an artifact of the nation’s biggest political scandal, sits in the Watergate collection of the National Archives.
In this year’s midterm elections, there is no talk of satchels of cash from donors. Nor is there any hint of illegal actions reaching Watergate-like proportions. But the fund-raising practices that earned people convictions in Watergate — giving direct corporate money to a campaign and doing so secretly — are back in a different form in 2010.
This time around, the corporations are still giving secretly, but legally. In 1907, direct corporate donations to candidates were legally barred in a campaign finance reform push by President Theodore Roosevelt. But that law and others — the foundation for many Watergate convictions — are all but obsolete. This is why many supporters of strict campaign finance laws are wringing their hands.
Certainly, it is still illegal for corporations to contribute directly to candidates. But they now have equally potent ways to exert their influence. This election year is the first since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporations for the first time to finance ads that directly support or oppose political candidates. And tax laws and loopholes have permitted a shadow campaign network of Republican-leaning nonprofit groups to collect a flood of anonymous donations and spend it widely.
If the Republicans make big gains in the House and Senate on Election Day, there is rare bipartisan consensus that they will owe part of their victory to the millions of dollars raised and spent by these nonprofit groups, much of which has come from businesses.