Who’s behind the money?

Bowman, who did not run for re-election, praised the public candidate forums and the civility therein, but expressed concern about the amount of money being spent and what he said was a lack of open campaign disclosure.

“In these last few weeks, big money has gotten involved to the extent, in my opinion, that it has just made a mockery of our city elections,” Bowman said. “I didn’t see it coming this fast. The times are here where bigger money is going to be involved in local elections. I had no idea whatsoever to this extent.”

One deadline for candidates and committees to file donation and expenditure reports fell on Feb. 13. Of the four races, only Ward 2 went to an April 5 runoff, and the two remaining candidates, Charlie Swinton and Ed Shadid, as well as other political groups, will be required to file campaign finance reports between Monday and March 25.

On both sides, candidates were backed, sometimes indirectly, by groups that exist in the murky area between PACs and nonprofit organizations. At least one such group plans to continue campaigning in the Ward 2 runoff.

A year ago, these non-PAC groups would have been severely restricted from supporting or opposing candidates, telling voters who they should elect, or giving money to PACs, but all of those restrictions were wiped away because of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Similar, but different

election committees aside, four groups filed to take part in campaign
contributions: Chesapeake Oklahoma Political Action Committee; Better
Local Government Political Action Committee; International Union of
Painters & Allied Trades Political Action Together Committee; and
the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum. These groups are not all
created equal, however. All four could be regarded as PACs, although one
isn’t — not because of its goals or political activity, but because of
its status with the Internal Revenue Service: the Committee for Oklahoma
City Momentum. While the other three committees are legal PACs,
Momentum is a 527 group, referred to as such for the section in the tax
code under which its organizational status falls. Because of their IRS
status, they operate under different rules than political action or
candidate committees.

While the FEC regulates PACs in federal elections, and
the Oklahoma Ethics Commission oversees state and county elections,
527s are not overseen by either. Instead, they fall under the regulatory
scope of the IRS, said Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the state
Ethics Commission.

527 groups and the issues surrounding them have gained prominence over
the past decade, most notably the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth 527 group
in 2004, which questioned presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s
military service in Vietnam.

In the following years,
527 groups were reined in by court rulings and FEC decisions. After
2007, a 527 group’s communication could not mention any election,
candidacy, political party, opposing candidate, nor a candidate’s
character, qualifications or fitness for office. But many of those
electioneering restrictions were swept away by the Citizens United
decision, as well as constraints on when advertisements could air,
limits on independent expenditures and limits on the groups’ use of
corporate money. In the case, the court ruled that many of the previous
restrictions were unconstitutional limits to the First Amendment.
However, state campaign laws governing municipal elections require that
organizations file campaign records with the municipal clerk. According
to IRS records, Momentum filed its Political Organization Notice of 527
status on Feb. 16 — the Monday following the city’s Friday campaign
contribution and expenditure reporting deadline.

The next day, Feb. 17,
the newly formed group filed its committee registration papers to
participate in the municipal election with no campaign finance reports.
The next campaign contribution filing period is a little more than a
week prior to the April 5 runoff.

Both filings have little
information about Momentum, but they do list the chairman as Oklahoma
City attorney William H. Whitehill Jr. Whitehill said his group will
file its reports during the March 21-25 time period. The new freedom
such groups now have as a result of Citizens United is the reason Momentum was able to participate in the city election, he said.

The liberal from Ward 5?

Leading up to the election, Momentum used bold campaign tactics. The group’s direct-mail pieces are ideologically diverse, praising one candidate’s progressive stance, and criticizing another for not being conservative enough.

Momentum circulated at least two direct-mail pieces that attacked the conservative reputation of Walters, an outspoken, conservative councilman who was endorsed by the Sooner Tea Party.

Walters declined to comment. One Momentum mailer superimposed Walters next to President Barack Obama, criticizing the councilman for voting to spend economic stimulus money.

“Instead of trimming back on government spending like a true conservative would do, Brian Walters voted to spend newly printed ‘stimulus’ dollars to grow city government,” it read.

The Momentum mailer then cites a June 17, 2009, story from The Oklahoman and City Council meeting minutes, specifically Resolution P, which was the approval of the city’s fiscal year 2010 budget. It passed the council unanimously, meaning Momentumbacked incumbents in other wards also voted in favor of it.

In fact, the group’s mailings in support of Salyer praise the incumbent’s progressive credentials. The group published a testimonial written by Democratic state Rep. Al
McAffrey, which stated, “She is a nonpartisan progressive leader who is
moving Oklahoma City forward. We cannot allow a handful of tea party
extremists to take over our community.”

The group also took out ads in The Oklahoman between Feb. 24 and March 1.

committee has no particular ideology; rather, we’re interested in
electing strong leaders who will keep OKC’s momentum going,” Whitehill
said. “The city has come too far in the past 15 to 20 years to stop or
slow down that momentum.”

Follow the money, if you can

Momentum group was not the only nonprofit involved in the city
election, however. The Better Local Government PAC received $125,000 —
the largest single donation at the time — from an organization called A
Voice for Responsible Government Inc.

Voice for Responsible Government is a nonprofit that filed
incorporation papers with the Oklahoma Secretary of State on Feb. 8 (two
days prior to the $125,000 donation). Local firefighters’ union
president and Better Local Government Chairman Phil Sipe said the group
is a 501(c)(4) charitable organization, which the IRS considers to be
“social welfare organizations.”

said money donated from the firefighters to A Voice for Responsible
Government was in turn given to the Better Local Government PAC, which
spent the money on campaigning. This flow of money allowed the nonprofit
to keep its donors anonymous because A Voice for Responsible Government
did not register with the city clerk.

527s, 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose their donors
in IRS filings. Sipe said the nonprofit’s funds came from money donated
by individual firefighters.

A Voice for Responsable Government was a corporation that was set up by
the firefighters for the purpose of funding A Better Local Government
PAC, “It’s all firefighter money,” Sipe said, noting that prior to the
Citizens United case, the nonprofit would not have been able to make
such large donations. “You could only donate a maximum amount allowed by
the Ethics Commission. On the advice of our counsel, we set it up the
way we did to make sure we didn’t violate the law. We did everything
legally to reduce our tax liability.”

The next election

Ward 2 runoff between Swinton and Shadid is April 5, and Momentum,
which backed Swinton in the primary, plans to continue exerting its

“We want to see what’s been happening in OKC the past 20 years keep moving on,” Whitehill said.

Sipe said neither the Better Local Government PAC nor the firefighter PAC will participate in the runoff.

not giving Ed any money at all. No firefighter PAC has donated any
money to him, and we don’t intend to. He doesn’t want any money from
us,” he said.

finding the source of campaign money is becoming more difficult since
the Citizens United decision, some local officials are calling for more
oversight. During the March 1 City Council meeting, Bowman recommended
the city look into making campaign disclosure more open, or at least
lobby the Legislature to do so at the state level.

think we owe it at least to our citizens to address it and see what we
can do about campaign disclosure,” Bowman said. “We’re not going to slow
the money down, the day has arrived and it’s going to come. But people
need to know who’s behind the money.”

View direct-mail pieces from the recent City Council race:

Adrian Van Manen #1

Adrian Van Manen #2

David Greenwell #1

Brian Walters #1

Brian Walters #2

Meg Salyer #1

Meg Salyer #2

Clifton Adcock

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