GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The top of the list of donors so far in this political season in Michigan doesn’t include a name that ends with DeVos.
Instead, through late August, the biggest single donor in the state is a “dark money” fund that worked just two years ago to oust President Donald Trump.
The Washington D.C.-based Sixteen Thirty Fund, which isn’t required to reveal its financial backers, topped the list of Michigan’s political donors through late August, giving $12 million so far.
That’s according to figures compiled by TransparencyUSA.org.
The next biggest donor: Kevin Rinke, who gave $10 million of his own money to his failed campaign for governor.
CONGRESSMAN: ‘THINGS ARE GETTING WORSE’
“The reason it’s called dark money is because it is depriving us, the public, of the possibility of holding our elected officials accountable,” said Robert Maguire, research director for CREW, an open-government group.
“We don’t know the identity of the donors and so we can’t track whether or not these members are essentially doing favors for these massive donors who are giving millions and tens of millions of dollars to the groups that are supporting them,” Maguire said.
Maguire has tracked dark money for 10 years. He said the darkness has spread since the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and other outside sources to spend unlimited money on elections.
At first, according to Grand Valley State University political science professor Whitt Kilburn, Republicans dominated the dark money game.
“Now it’s the Democrats who are spending more money on elections, get out the vote drives, ads, all of that through these so-called dark money outfits,” Kilburn said.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from St. Joseph, who worked years ago with the late U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona on campaign finance reform, said he has been targeted by attack ads funded by dark money.
“Both sides do it. You can point the finger at Rs and Ds,” Upton said. “Alarmingly, things are getting worse.”
THE SIXTEEN THIRTY FUND
The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a Democrat-aligned nonprofit that, according to reports, including by Politico, focused on unseating Trump and other Republican leaders in 2020, paying for attack ads.
“For the left, for the Democrats, this is really the big organization that helps to funnel the dark money into causes that the party is associated with,” Kilburn said.
Dark money funds are coming from social welfare organizations that file as 501(c)4 groups, Kilburn said. Unlike nonprofits that file as 501(c)3 groups, donations to social welfare organizations are not tax-deductible. The social welfare groups aren’t required to list their donors.
On its website, the Sixteen Thirty Fund calls itself a public charity that supports progressive policy: racial justice, affordable health care, confronting climate change.
Tax records reviewed by Target 8 show the Sixteen Thirty Fund raised nearly $390 million in 2020, far more than in previous years.
Records list 178 donors. The biggest donor gave $86.2 million; one gave $52.7 million in publicly traded securities; two gave $45 million each; 35 gave $1 million or more each.
What tax records don’t show is where its money came from — no names.
“This is an incredible amount of money coming from a very small few handful of donors,” Maguire said.
The $86.2 million actually came from another nonprofit, the New Venture Fund, according to that fund’s tax records. New Venture also isn’t required to list its donors. Washington, D.C.-based New Venture Fund raised $975 million in 2020 and listed eight nameless donors, including two providing more than $100 million each.
“It’s a shell game,” said Kilburn, the GVSU professor.
‘DARK MONEY’ FUNDS ADS IN WEST MICHIGAN
These dark money sources aren’t allowed to give directly to candidates or their campaigns.
But critics say they’re often behind the negative ads. Among them, a negative ad calling Hillary Scholten “dangerously liberal.” She’s a Democrat running for the 3rd Congressional seat in Michigan against Republican John Gibbs. The ad was paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund, which got $28 million from a dark money source known as the American Action Network, records show.
“It adds to the perception that everybody in Lansing, everybody in Washington, the White House, etc. are just a bunk of jerks, and it’s really disappointing,” Upton said.
As for the Sixteen Thirty Fund, campaign finance records show it split its $12 million among three progressive political action committees: Promote the Vote 2022, Michiganders for Fair Lending and Protect MI Vote.
Tracking the money shows those PACS spent most of that money to put boots on the ground. Most has gone to a D.C.-based nonprofit known as FieldWorks that, according to its website, pays up to $24 per hour to make calls and bang on doors across the state. It lists three offices in Michigan, including in Kalamazoo.
“This will definitely have an impact” on elections in Michigan, Maguire said of the $12 million donations.
A spokesperson for the Sixteen Thirty Fund refused Target 8’s request for an interview. Instead, the group emailed a statement:
“Sixteen Thirty Fund is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that helps progressive campaigns and causes fighting for voting rights, reproductive freedom, economic equity, affordable health care, climate solutions, and other essential social change goals.
“We are proud to support a variety of organizations in Michigan working toward those important and impactful ends.”
In September, Republicans in the U.S. Senate rejected a Democrat bill to open donor records.
Upton said he doesn’t expect a solution soon.
“In essence, it will take a constitutional amendment to change things,” he said. “That means a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate. That’s not a piece of the pie. It’s just not going to happen.”