What do nameless political donors have to hide?

Posted Nov. 28, 2010, at 6:58 p.m.

Should groups disclose who is contributing to candidate’s campaigns or to advertising in elections for or against candidates? Should contributions be transparent to the public?

We’ve all seen the ads from candidates that end with “I approved this message” this past political season. That is meant to create transparency in campaigns. Then there are other ads put forth by various political action committees. They are registered with the Federal Election Commission and required to submit a list of donors quarterly with limitations set on how much they can donate to candidates, but not limited in how much they can spend independently.

In this election new committees formed as nonprofits, known by their IRS category, 501 c (4)s. In the nonprofit TV ads, similar to the PACs, there is a disclaimer that the nonprofit funded the ad. Unlike PACs, we don’t know who the donors are. These new groups have forced us to think about whether we care who the donors are. But does it affect our vote?

In this country, we have used words such as open meetings or the sunshine act to describe the requirement that the conduct of public business be available to citizens. We’ve enacted whistle-blower laws to protect those who discover illegal or unethical actions of politicians and government agencies. We talk about making politicians accountable for what they say and do. So where did these ideas of transparency come from that seem so similar?

“Transparent” has been used to describe something that light can transmit through or it is used in phrases such as “the meaning is transparent” or clear to the listener. But its present use as a political word begins in the 1990s in formal documents surrounding the creation of the European Union, European trade agreements and activities of nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, in particular, the creation of Transparency International.

Peter Eigen, a manager at the World Bank, became increasingly frustrated by the misuse of World Bank funds because of corruption. When he failed to get a change of policy, he created Transparency International. This organization called for transparency — that is, openness in government practices — as an antidote to corruption.

As it has moved across the pond, transparency has become the catchword for not only openness of communication in the private, public and nonprofit sectors, but also greater accessibility to information through the web, an up-front means of accountability, and a process organizations can develop to involve the public in decision-making to reporting outcomes.

The IRS recently modified its reporting requirements for non-profit organizations to require greater information on the charitable service they provide to the public and the salaries of their executives. Nonprofits that take out political ads without reporting that their donors may be within their constitutional rights, but it certainly violates the evolving idea of transparency.

Carolyn Ball is an associate professor of Public Administration at the University of Maine.

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