Midlands Voices: Shine a light on all donations

The writer, of Valparaiso, Nebraska, is issues chair of Common Cause Nebraska.

According to data compiled by The World-Herald, the Ricketts family has poured more than $3.6 million into Nebraska political campaigns since 1999. Pete donated $1.8 million; his parents, Joe and Marlene, kicked in $1,7 million, and his brother Todd chipped in $33,531. All of this to advance the family’s favorite candidates and causes.

Nothing wrong here. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that free speech and money are the same thing. Since Nebraska’s Campaign Finance Limitation Act was declared unconstitutional in 2012, our state has no protection against big money, and those who have it get to speak louder and more often than those who don’t.

But what about the “dark money” groups, the 501©s that are not required to disclose their donors? How did these hit-and-run groups — such as Trees of Liberty, the 10th Amendment Project and the Alliance for Taxpayers — get the resources to attack Nebraska candidates and initiatives? Some of these groups can be traced to Arlington, Virginia, home of Freedom Partners, a 501©(6) that is part of the Koch brothers’ political network and to which individuals who may want to remain anonymous can donate.

Freedom Partners has funded Trees of Liberty and another dark money group, Americans for Prosperity. Both groups attacked Nebraska Republican State Sens. Les Seiler, Jerry Johnson and Al Davis when they ran for reelection. Gov. Ricketts publicly denounced the three senators for voting to override his vetoes and contributed to their challengers: Steve Halloran ($10,000), Bruce Bostelman ($13,000) and Tom Brewer ($5,000). Gov. Ricketts is a founder of the Nebraska Chapter of Americans for Prosperity. All three incumbents were defeated.

In 2016, Bob Lammers ran against John Lowe for the Nebraska Legislature. Trees of Liberty and Americans for Prosperity attacked Lammers. Gov. Ricketts contributed $10,000 to Lowe’s campaign. Lowe publicly supported the governor’s preferences in legislation, while Lammers opposed the governor on charter schools and other issues. Lammers was defeated.

In 2018, Gov. Ricketts publicly supported Joe Murray and Al Riskowski and donated $5,000 to both legislative candidates. The 10th Amendment Project appeared, attacking the opposition candidates Myron Dorn and Tom Brandt.

The 10th Amendment Project was funded by a political action committee called Future 45. Todd Ricketts was a fundraiser for the PAC, and Joe Ricketts contributed $1 million to Future 45. Both Dorn and Brandt were elected despite the opposition.

The initiative effort, often known as Nebraska’s “second house,” has also experienced dark money attacks and Ricketts family money. Referendum 426, calling for the repeal of the death penalty ban, was supported by Americans for Prosperity, and the Ricketts family contributed $450,000 to this petition effort.

Currently a number of groups are considering petition efforts dealing with issues the governor has opposed. A new dark money group, the Alliance for the Pure Life, has appeared, opposing medical marijuana and casino gambling. These are hot issues likely to catch the attention of voters, but there is an even more serious issue at stake. Their postcard mailing warns Nebraskans not to sign petitions. According to The World-Herald, the cards go on to say that those who sign could put their private information at risk.

The petition process is vital in a state with a one-house Legislature. No one knows who is funding the Alliance for the Pure Life, but its ads threaten democracy in Nebraska. We must hope that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding greater disclosure of dark money donors will shed a bright light on those who fight in the shadows.

When entities with great wealth are permitted to overpower the small donor and to attack candidates for public office without identifying who they are, our electoral system becomes warped. The average voter is too often caught in the middle, not knowing who is telling the truth. And it is the truth that keeps us free.