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May 29, 2017

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Shady political money has taken root in Texas

San Antonio Express-News/MCT--In mid-February, less than a month before the Texas primaries, an out-of-state nonprofit with a penchant for spending big to influence elections across the country started pouring money into several races in the Lone Star State.

When the dust settled, Education Reform Now Advocacy, the political arm of a New York City-based pro-charter school outfit, reported dropping roughly US$115,000 for mailers promoting candidates in three Texas House races and one running for the state board of education, records show.

The individual donors bankrolling the effort? Nameless.

Welcome to the Texas dark money landscape — a still-burgeoning scene where anonymous campaign cash has been injected into a broad mix of state and local elections, from dozens of House and Senate campaigns to city council contests to state board of education and local school trustee races.

With Texas in the midst of a heated governor's race attracting national attention and national donors, the stream of secret campaign cash from outside groups is expected to steadily increase.

The names of the contributors behind the school-reform nonprofit — and others like it — remain cloaked in anonymity because the group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, a "social welfare" organization that's allowed to play in the political arena without having to disclose donors.

And now, four years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that tossed out the corporate and union ban on independent expenditures, politically active C4 organizations and their anonymous donors have been thrust to the forefront of campaign finance reform efforts in Texas.

It comes as Republicans use the cloak-a-contributor technique to wage war against each other in primaries: Campaign finance filings show in recent months two C4s with big business interests have started funding candidates in the cross hairs of conservative gadfly Michael Quinn Sullivan and his nonprofit Empower Texans.

Multi-pronged Reform Process

On the regulatory front, the Texas Ethics Commission has put up for public comment proposed rule-making to address anonymous contributions, garnering four submissions so far. The agency also is investigating the Empower Texans C4 based on a complaint that the group failed to report corporate political expenditures prior to May 2012, part of a larger probe that recently spilled into federal court over subpoenas seeking disclosure of communication with donors and subscribers from an email list.

And some lawmakers, vehemently vexed after being targeted by dark money, are working to revamp C4 disclosure legislation vetoed by Governor Rick Perry last session that aimed to bring anonymous donors out of the shadows.

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