Shining a light on campaign finances

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Same sex marriage is a contentious issue both in Rhode Island and across the nation. But there is a byproduct of this debate that has nothing to do with gay marriage that should alarm advocates on both sides.

It's no secret that Rhode Island has a long and florid history of political corruption. In response to some of the insider dealing that sparked the state credit union crash of the early 1990s, the General Assembly changed the state's campaign finance laws to force politicians and political action committees to disclose who is financing them. Over the years those laws have been updated to provide voters with even more information about those who finance campaigns and lobby our lawmakers.

Now comes the National Organization for Marriage, the anti-gay marriage group, which has gone to federal court to throw out Rhode Island's campaign finance disclosure laws. This would give them the right to spend thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, to influence our elections and the General Assembly without saying where this money comes from.

This group asserts that its First Amendment Free Speech rights are curbed by the requirement that it disclose its contributors. The lawyer for the anti-gay marriage group is James Bopp, a member of the Republican National Committee. He has sued other states to get rid of campaign finance laws in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case which ruled that unlimited amounts of corporate money can be spent to influence elections.

Now Bopp and some of the groups he represents are on a crusade against state campaign finance laws. In his argument against our laws, Bopp asserts that Rhode Island just wants to "run everybody through the wringer'' of complicated campaign disclosure laws to drive some groups away from participation in politics. (Bopp, a member of the Republican National Committee is the lawyer hired by Governor Carcieri in 2007 to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the Rhode Island Supreme Court supporting the governor's position against gay marriage in a divorce case involving a lsbian couple married in Massachusetts.)

Free Speech is the bedrock of American democracy. But what harm can there be in giving citizens the right to know who is financing political speech?

Don't we have the right to know whether the AFL_CIO or the Chamber of Commerce is the source of money for television spots or mass advertising? Or whether an arm of a foreign country such as Citgo, the state-owned Venezuelan oil company, is trying to sway an election?

If anything, voters in today's fractured media climate and multi-million dollar political campaigns are entitled to more, not less, information about the source of campaign and lobbying money.

"We have a need and a right to know whether wealthy people from New York, or Utah, or California or wherever are trying to shape the outcome of an issue in Rhode Island,'' says Phil West, the former executive director of Common Cause and the grand old man of Rhode Island electoral reform.

But Bopp, the National Organization for Marriage lawyer, says it is none of Rhode Island's business who contributed to his group. He says there is no need for the public to know who paid for a message that doesn't specifically support a candidate.

So far, the federal court has taken a skeptical view of this lawsuit. Last Friday, federal Judge Mary Lisi dismissed the suit, calling it vague and disorganized. But she gave them until Wednesday to amend their arguments.

For the record, the Marriage Equality Rhode Island group, which supports gay marriage, says it will gladly comply with state campaign finance laws.

Ninety seven years ago, Louis Brandeis wrote that "sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant; electric light the most efficient policeman.''

If anything, government by and for the monied interests is as pernicious today as it was in Brandeis day. When you seek to influence the people's business, you ought to do it in the full view of the people.