Opinion

Dark moneyneeds light

Candidates for Governor of North Carolina Roy Cooper (D), left, and Gov. Pat McCrory (R) debate at WRAL studios in Raleigh on Oct. 18, 2016. Both McCrory and Cooper have had ‘dark money’ groups support their agendas.
Candidates for Governor of North Carolina Roy Cooper (D), left, and Gov. Pat McCrory (R) debate at WRAL studios in Raleigh on Oct. 18, 2016. Both McCrory and Cooper have had ‘dark money’ groups support their agendas. cseward@newsobserver.com

As a longtime politician, Gov. Roy Cooper is well-schooled in the power of symbolism. As a former attorney general, he also understands how generous contributors can unduly influence the legislative process. So why does the governor seems blithely ignorant to how it looks when he speaks to a dark money group, which helps it raise funds?

Cooper, along with some cabinet members and senior staffers with Attorney General Josh Stein, attended a meeting in Pinehurst on June 30 sponsored by of group known as Moving North Carolina Forward. The group has a laudable agenda it describes as “supporting and advocating for policies that advance economic growth, strengthen public education and promote a welcoming, inclusive business environment – regardless of political party.”

That agenda dovetails, not coincidentally, with the agendas of Cooper and Stein and it’s understandable why Democratic officeholders would meet with such an advocacy group. But the problem is that Moving North Carolina Forward is a so-called 501(c)(4) group, a title referring to its status under the federal tax code. It can collect unlimited donations and is not required to disclose its donors. An invitation to a March event sponsored by the group suggested donations of $10,000 for “a supporter” and $100,000 for an “executive partner.”

These groups have become standard fare for governors. Governors get support for their agenda without having direct ties to the group. But these groups create a backdoor for corporations and wealthy individuals to make large, anonymous donations to a governor’s favored causes.

Cooper’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, also was supported by a dark money group, The Foundation for North Carolina, which was later renamed Renew North Carolina. McCrory was cavalier about the appearance of conflict. When his approval ratings fell early in his tenure in 2013, the group spent $166,000 on a TV ad supporting him.

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said donations to groups supporting a governor’s agenda “should have transparency just to eliminate the perception that there isn’t some pay-for-play activity.”

Such groups as Renew North Carolina and Moving North Carolina Forward are perfectly legal, but they are not perfectly healthy. Democracy requires transparency and these groups offer cover. If the Cooper and Stein wish to participate in events sponsored by a dark money group they should request that the group voluntarily make all its donors and their donations public.

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