What the likely official (non)response to Carolina Rising’s dubious activity says about accountability in politics

October 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 22, 2015

I wanted to revisit Robert Maguire’s investigation into Carolina Rising, which I mentioned earlier today in Recent Readings. The group is ostensibly a 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit, but Maguire, writing for the Center for Responsive Politics, raises questions about whether it engaged in illegal campaign activity. Most of the organization’s $4.8 million was spent on advertisements in support of Thom Tillis, then the speaker of the state House of Representatives and now North Carolina’s junior U.S. senator.

Carolina Rising was founded by Dallas Woodhouse, a former head of the state chapter of the Koch brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity who was recently chosen to head the North Carolina Republican Party. (Woodhouse’s twin brother, Brad, is a prominent liberal; last year, their mom called C-SPAN during a segment featuring both siblings to say that she hoped they’d be able to abstain from political bickering over Christmas.)

Carolina Rising reported having no employees and no volunteers in its first public tax filing, Maguire reported. Woodhouse sent Maguire a statement vigorously denying any wrongdoing by him or the organization.

As mentioned in the previous post, Maguire documented his story with:

portions of TV advertising contracts on file with the Federal Communications Commission stating that the air time is “supporting Thom Tillis, senatorial candidate for N.C. (R) – election on 11/4/14.”

But Maguire’s post also includes a clip of an election-night broadcast from Tillis’s victory celebration that must be seen to be believed. In it, a possibly inebriated Dallas Woodhouse wears sunglasses and a gaudy Tillis hat.

As the segment begins, the reporter asks, “You just mentioned, you spent a whole lot of money to get this man elected, right?”

The operative replies: “$4.7 million. We did it. And I have got the hat and have the glasses, because that’s what’s gonna happen to the Democrats tomorrow, they’re gonna be hiding. You know, it’s gonna be a bad night for Democrats across the country and a good night for Tillis.”

If there’s ever any state or federal investigation into the propriety of Carolina Rising, the contracts and that interview are sure to be key pieces of evidence.

The key word in that sentence, alas, is if. Campaign finance activity seems to have been largely deregulated thanks to two developments. One, of course, is the widely known 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which the Center for Public Integrity says “gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools…”

The other is inactivity on the part of the Federal Elections Commission. Ann Ravel, the commission’s chairwoman, told The New York Times in May that the FEC is “worse than dysfunctional.” According to the Times’s Eric Lichtblau, the six commissioners:

are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate.

Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted.

In a follow-up article, Lichtblau reported that FEC penalties in 2014 dropped to “the lowest amount on record since the current system for issuing fines started in 2001.”

If you believe that politicians, campaign staffers and political donors should not be held accountable for their actions, and that political speech should be funded secretly, this is an excellent state of affairs. If you believe otherwise, this is a very troubling situation.

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