Why should we care about dark money?

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If there’s one thing that’s dominated my reporting over the eight months I’ve spent with New Mexico in Depth, it’s dark money; it was the subject of my first story, and almost half the stories I’ve reported since then.

Bryan Metzger

For the uninitiated, “dark money” typically refers to outside spending by nonprofit entities that are not obligated to disclose their donors, at least under federal law. In 2019, New Mexico passed a law to force these kinds of organizations to disclose their donors, but in 2020, two groups challenged the law rather than comply with it, underscoring the difficulty in bringing to light what special interests are behind political spending. 

This morning, we published a story that took a deep dive on one of these groups– the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers”– which spent $264,000 advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to change the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC) from a five-member elected body to a three-member appointed body, beginning in 2023. It was the first time I’d really attempted to get to the source of a dark money group’s funds, rather than simply report on a lack of disclosure.

What we found were some strange bedfellows. The revelation of a $10,000 contribution from Exxon Mobil to a dark money group run by individuals from the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund is one that’s sure to raise questions.

But that doesn’t mean that the constitutional amendment itself is unworthy. 

Over the weeks I spent reporting this story, I interviewed several people who had either advocated for or worked on the constitutional amendment. Going into it, I half-expected to find some sort of smoking gun, some kind of tell-tale sign that this reform was in fact a huge gift to utilities and (apparently) companies like Exxon Mobil.

In the end, that’s not what I found. Everyone I spoke with made cogent arguments for why this was a good decision, and over time I even became convinced of the merits of the constitutional amendment. 

One might even view this kind of “strange bedfellows” situation as a reason to support the ballot measure; if groups with widely differing interests can come together on something of common import, doesn’t that speak to its merits? This was the argument made to me by Noah Long, the treasurer of the dark money group and one of the individuals who helped shape the legislation in 2019.

Yet the fact remains that this collaboration took place largely in the dark. 

Fred Nathan, the executive director of Think New Mexico, has worked on addressing many of the issues plaguing the PRC over the years. However, he cited the dark money spending as a key reason why he would be opposing the constitutional amendment, writing in the Albuquerque Journal: “If this constitutional amendment is really so good for consumers, why are the people who are bankrolling it hiding their identities from the public?”

As Kathleen Sabo, director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, told me, one of the worst things about dark money is that it “clouds the issue.” 

As I prepared to report out this story, I emailed Long some questions about the language of the constitutional amendment he’d worked on, along with why his group had apparently solicited money from Exxon Mobil. His began his reply with the following:

“I thought the process to develop the amendment was a careful, transparent and thoughtful one, with none of the corruption you are alleging.”

I had not, in fact, accused Long of corruption, but the fact that he assumed that was telling.

Ultimately, if there’s anything to learn from this story, it’s that transparency is not just in the public interest, but often in the interest of political actors as well. You might have a great public policy measure on your hands, but if you choose to advocate for it in a non-transparent way, you’re going to face tough questions not just from nosy journalists like myself, but from the public at large.

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