Dark Money and the Downfall of Eric Greitens

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Eric Greitens on May 17, 2018, in Jefferson City, Missouri

Missouri Governor Eric Greitens announced his resignation last week, just 16 months into a term that saw a career’s worth of scandals. But the spectacle continues. 

For those who haven’t been following the man’s political immolation, the tawdry parts are the stuff of prime-time TV: a Democrat-turned-Republican Navy SEAL; a dashing politician with presidential ambitions; an extramarital affair; alleged blackmail involving nude photos; and a felony charge over data tampering. For months, it seemed none of that was enough to knock Greitens from his perch.

Then, in a move that was both overdue and unexpected, he resigned. 

Just hours earlier, a county court had ordered a shadowy nonprofit doing political work for Greitens to turn over internal documents to a state legislative committee investigating his misconduct. Questions had already swirled around this group, A New Missouri. Structured as a social welfare nonprofit, it gives donors anonymity while simultaneously boosting the governor’s agenda.

Greitens, we now know, resigned as part of a deal to avoid criminal charges unrelated to the nonprofit. But the timing of his decision raises questions about A New Missouri—namely, whether the documents a judge ordered the group to produce could have supported allegations of improper coordination among the nonprofit, the governor’s office, and his campaign—and revealed the identities of previously secret donors. Reports that A New Missouri’s donors “were panicking” that their names might become public offer little hope for anyone seeking to give Greitens the benefit of the doubt. 

The probe into A New Missouri remains in limbo following Greitens’s resignation, with a sure-to-be contentious hearing set for this Thursday to decide whether the nonprofit must still release documents to the Missouri House of Representatives. But no matter what the judge determines, one conclusion seems clear: Elected officials should not be permitted to collect secret, unlimited donations from behind the shield of opaque nonprofits. The risks of corruption and of damage to the public trust are simply too grave.

A New Missouri has been as secretive about its funding as it has been aggressive in serving the former governor’s political ends. Soon after Greitens moved into the governor’s mansion, the nonprofit’s officials raised at least $865,000 in anonymous funds to promote his agenda and underwrite his occasional junkets out of state. The group’s headquarters are in a building owned by a major campaign donor to the governor—a building where, incidentally, Greitens’s campaign staff also set up camp. A top adviser to the governor, who also served as Greitens’s campaign treasurer, helms the nonprofit.

Nonprofits like the one Greitens’s team led have become the perfect conduits for corruption, making it reasonable to worry that A New Missouri served not only to promote the governor but also to shield deep-pocketed donors seeking official favors. It’s also reasonable to think that potential exposure of such unsavory relationships may have at least partially contributed to his downfall.

Donors across the country have indicated that when they give to these officeholder-controlled nonprofits they expect certain favors in return. In Los Angeles, a pipe-manufacturing executive pledged $1 million to Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nonprofit—but not before making it clear that he was seeking influence—in a city that bans campaign contributions by companies doing business with the government. And in New York, gambling companies donated $2 million to a nonprofit affiliated with Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo just before he declared his support for more state-sanctioned gambling.

This kind of political chicanery goes virtually unregulated, while court rulings, including the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, have increased the flow of dark money overall. For dark-money nonprofits such as A New Missouri that engage in advocacy after Election Day, routine campaign-finance protections such as donation limits and donor disclosure typically do not apply.

The lack of regulation around these entities comes down to their relative newness as a political tool. But just as the buddy PAC became a must-have campaign accessory in just a few years, the use of officeholder-controlled nonprofits has surged recently. All of which poses urgent problems for policymakers in Missouri and nationwide.

At the Brennan Center, we have proposed a practical, constitutional roadmap that state and federal legislators can adopt to keep track of the activities of these groups. For nonprofits like A New Missouri, which are effectively controlled by an officeholder who uses most of the funds raised to promote a specific political agenda, we suggest two key reforms that are well-established components of anti-corruption law.

One is public disclosure of donors and their financial contributions to the nonprofit. The second is contribution limits for donors who have business interests in a state or municipality where the relevant officeholder holds power. Allowing elected officials to accept money from secret donors, including from people with actual business before them, opens the door to conflicted loyalties and corruption that can undermine merit-based governing—and the underpinnings of democracy itself.

As this latest Greitens scandal continues to unravel, the lesson for constituents and legislators alike is clear: “Just trust me” does not work as the guiding principle for officeholder-controlled nonprofits because they are a direct route to official power for a few wealthy donors.

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