When Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was confronted by a voter at a New Hampshire town hall meeting this year about the torrent of cash flowing into the presidential election through outside groups, he offered a note of sympathy. “Full disclosure and sunlight into all these expenditures is critical to getting to the root of this problem,” Mr. Rubio told the voter. He added, “As long as you know who’s behind the money and how much they’re giving and where they’re spending it, I think that’s the sunlight that we need.”
Jeb Bush talked to Iowa Public Radio late last week, and the host asked why the former Florida governor has focused more on the Hawkeye State. Bush responded by emphasizing his frequent visits, his on-the-ground operation, and the campaign's field staff. And then, almost in passing, the Republican seemed to confess to a violation of campaign-finance laws.
Referring to Iowa's airwaves, Bush said, "We just started to advertise -- actually the Right to Rise PAC started to advertise, not our campaign."
Jeb had to catch himself because he briefly and accidentally told the truth. His super PAC is, as a legal matter, supposed to be distinct from the Bush campaign operation, but his use of the word "we" effectively gave away the game.
And while Bush's slip-up in Iowa was a striking reminder of how messy the system has become, it's Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) campaign-finance game that's even tougher to defend.
The problem, of course, is that what Rubio said is contradicted by what Rubio is doing. The guy touting "full disclosure" and "sunlight" is benefiting from undisclosed campaign contributions through a shady campaign operation unlike anything else in the 2016 race.
Rubio's presidential campaign is, to be sure, the beneficiary of multiple entities. There is, of course, the senator's official campaign operation. Then there's an allied super PAC, which is technically supposed to function independently. But Rubio also benefits from something called the Conservative Solutions Project, a non-profit 501(c)4 entity that keeps its donor lists hidden from public view.
The Associated Press recently noted that every pro-Rubio television ad that's aired in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- literally, every commercial, at a combined cost of over $5 million -- "has been paid for not by his campaign or even by a super PAC that identifies its donors, but instead by a nonprofit called Conservative Solutions Project. It's also sending Rubio-boosting mail to voters in those same states."
Remember, Rubio told a voter, with apparent sincerity, that so long as the public knows "who’s behind the money and how much they’re giving and where they’re spending it, I think that’s the sunlight that we need.” But those "needs" aren't being met by Rubio himself, since he's relying on an entity that keeps its donor information secret.
How in the world is this legal? The New York Times spoke to Marcus Owens, an expert in campaign-finance law and a former top official at the I.R.S., who suggested it may not be legal: “It doesn’t comport with tax law, but the problem is that the I.R.S. budget has been so constrained that they don’t have a lot of resources in this area. So if somebody is comfortable being aggressive, they’re just betting that the audit lottery won’t call their number any time soon, which is probably a safe bet.”
The Conservative Solutions Project will argue, of course, that it's not using its dark-money accounts to advocate in support of a single candidate. But as the Times' report explained, "[T]he group’s commercials all focus on Mr. Rubio. The senator’s picture is prominently featured on its website, and a video featuring Mr. Rubio speaking is the first thing shown to the site’s visitors. The group is now run by Pat Shortridge, an adviser on Mr. Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign. J. Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina-based Republican consultant who was once a business partner with Mr. Rubio’s campaign manager, is on its board. Mr. Tompkins also oversees the super PAC backing Mr. Rubio -- which is called Conservative Solutions PAC and which shares fund-raising consultants with the nonprofit."
Campaign-finance shell games are not uncommon, but even by the standards of American elections, Team Rubio is pushing the envelope in unusually brazen ways.
As offensive as this may be to proponents of clean elections, what's truly jarring is watching Rubio promise one thing while doing the exact opposite. “Full disclosure and sunlight into all these expenditures is critical to getting to the root of this problem," says the candidate whose allied group is hiding its donor information.
And while Rubio isn't the only candidate looking to take advantage of every campaign-finance opportunity, he is the only candidate who's relying so heavily on a secretive group to promote his candidate on the airwaves.
Donald Trump likes to characterize Rubio as a "puppet" for the senator's wealthy donors, but what's especially important in a story like this is the degree to which Americans can't and won't know who's pulling the strings.