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Dark Money, Donor Disclosure Face Off in West Virginia

PHOTO: 'Dark money' disclosure provisions were stripped from a campaign finance bill in the West Virginia Legislature late Sunday night. Meanwhile, a secretive conservative group's $100,000 per person breakfast was cancelled after local reporters got ahold of an invitation. Photo courtesy West Virginia Legislature.
PHOTO: 'Dark money' disclosure provisions were stripped from a campaign finance bill in the West Virginia Legislature late Sunday night. Meanwhile, a secretive conservative group's $100,000 per person breakfast was cancelled after local reporters got ahold of an invitation. Photo courtesy West Virginia Legislature.
March 10, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The clash between "sunlight" disclosure of political donors and so-called "dark money" campaign financing is on full display in Charleston.

A $100,000 per plate breakfast benefitting a secretive conservative group was cancelled Sunday night after reporters received a copy of an invitation. Then, late Sunday, donor disclosure provisions were stripped from a campaign finance bill at the Legislature.

Dark money groups keep their donors' names secret, and Kanawha County delegate Mike Pushkin says that's bad for democracy. He says large, secret donations are especially unsavory as the state's largest food bank struggles to stay open.

"The breakfast, the $100,000 eggs...they could put that money to better use," says Pushkin. "Help the working people of West Virginia by supporting the Mountaineer Food Bank that's in danger of closing its doors in the next couple of weeks."

Dark money defenders say political donations from rich individuals or corporations are a form of free speech. Several state senators have said the bill will not pass without the disclosure rules.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, says the Senate Judiciary Committee worked hard to reach a bipartisan compromise on campaign finance rules. He says as it passed out of the Senate, it included "sunshine" provisions, requiring the disclosure of donors' names by groups that would otherwise keep them secret. It was taken up by a House committee.

"Then in the dark of the night, at literally 30 minutes before midnight, all of the sunshine disclosure language was taken out of the bill," says Zuckett. "It was passed by pretty much a party-line vote."

The high-dollar breakfast was organized by the conservative group Go West Virginia Incorporated. Its president, Elkins realtor Mark Scott, declined to answer questions.

Zuckett says organizations like Go West Virginia are destructive to the political process because they fund negative campaign ads.

"Basically it's all mud and lies," he says. "It's one of the things we feel turns the voter off. It's actually depressing voter turnout because everyone's so disgusted."

Senate Bill 541 will be up for debate in the House this week.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV