Representative Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, at the...

Representative Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Photographer: Annabelle Gordon/Bloomberg Credit: Bloomberg/Annabelle Gordon

This guest essay reflects the views of Roger G. Wieand, senior researcher for campaign finance and ethics at Campaign Legal Center.

Just before the Super Bowl, New Yorkers were treated to a new television ad attacking Tom Suozzi, who ultimately won the special election to complete George Santos’ term representing the 3rd Congressional District.

What they didn’t know was that the ad had been paid for by a shadowy pop-up political group that exploited federal reporting deadlines to keep the sources of its money secret from voters until after votes had been cast.

The ad, called “Sanctuary Suozzi,” was paid for by a group called “Secure NYS PAC.” Despite existing for less than two months, it managed to raise and spend nearly $1.5 million on ads opposing Suozzi.

The group was a super PAC, a type of political committee that has flourished after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Super PACs are permitted to raise and spend unlimited sums on elections, including money from corporations and wealthy special interests.

The Supreme Court made clear that this spending must be openly disclosed to the public and independent of any candidate or political party. Federal campaign finance laws are supposed to ensure that voters know exactly who gives to super PACs.

But some groups have developed ways to blatantly undermine that required transparency. By strategically timing its creation and funding around federal reporting deadlines, Secure NYS PAC was able to conceal from voters almost everyone who was giving it money to defeat Suozzi.

When New Yorkers went to the polls on Feb. 13, just $125,000 of Secure NYS PAC’s donations had been made public. The names of other contributors, like billionaire political donors Ronald Lauder, Stephen Schwarzman, and Kenneth Langone, were effectively kept secret until after the election.

Moreover, some donors gave money through obscure companies with names like “Molly LLC” (which gave $360,000), “LeMans LLC” ($100,000), and “Leon Rachel Corporation” ($100,000). These companies appear to exist only on paper — there’s no public record of them conducting any business, and no indication of who owns them or gave them money.

Secure NYS PAC is an illustration of a deeply concerning trend in which wealthy donors and political strategists have successfully concealed election spending from voters by undermining federal transparency laws.

Some super PACs also use this “pop-up” tactic to hide dishonest politicking or ties to the candidate. In 2020, “True Kentucky Patriots” spent millions to support a Libertarian Senate candidate. Only after the election was it revealed to be completely funded by a Democratic group trying to sap votes from Mitch McConnell.

Congress could act to stop this. One solution, the DISCLOSE Act, would make key changes to federal election laws to end secret spending. If the DISCLOSE Act were law, Secure NYS PAC would have been required to list its top five funders in its ads, and “traceback” requirements would have exposed who was behind the shell companies that quietly gave it large sums of cash. The bill has been introduced in every Congress since 2010 but has never passed both the House and Senate.

Instead, secret spending has ballooned into a fundamental feature of American politics. More than a billion dollars in “dark money” was spent in the 2020 election, and every year, wealthy individuals, corporations, and special interests find new ways to hide spending from voters.

Secure NYS PAC’s seven-figure secret spending operation is just a drop in an ocean of electoral spending that stays anonymous as voters cast ballots. 2024 is guaranteed to be the most expensive election in history. How much of that spending will be transparent?

THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of Roger G. Wieand, senior researcher for campaign finance and ethics at Campaign Legal Center.


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