Who's buying our elections? Inside the shadowy world of "Dark Money"

Salon talks to director Kimberly Reed about her new documentary

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 17, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Protesters against dark money in "Dark Money" (Dark Money)
Protesters against dark money in "Dark Money" (Dark Money)

It's a story that sounds like it's straight out of a political thriller, but it's all too real. A new film takes a look inside the shadowy world of the political process, and one reporter's quest to get to the heart of questions that affect all of us, wherever we are in the political spectrum: Who is influencing our elections? How are they doing it? Why are they doing it?

Following her groundbreaking autobiographical of the documentary "Prodigal Sons," Kimberly Reed is back with her Sundance award-winning new film "Dark Money."

Let's start with the concept of Dark Money. We hear phrases like campaign finance reform all the time and we've heard the phrase "dark money." What does that really mean though? What are we talking about when we say dark money?

Dark money is just money that goes into elections to oppose or to try to defeat certain candidates, where we don't know where the money is coming from. In the wake of the Watergate scandals, there was a broad movement for reform because there was a lot of unaccounted for money sloshing around that was used for all sorts of nefarious purposes. There was a big push, in large part led by Republicans who saw their brand name really tarnished and wanted to do something about that. It was a big raft of reforms that said essentially, we need to know where the money is coming from.

There's always been money trying to influence politics. I think there always will be a certain amount of money influencing politics, but the Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court came down in 2010 [said] that money can be unlimited. They also presumed that we would know where the money was coming from, that that would be disclosed, so that as voters we can look at what the influences are, figure out who's trying to pay off who, whose trying to buy who and weed that out and vote accordingly. But we've seen in the last couple of years this trend towards using a lot of dark money. We don't know where it's coming from and that disables us as viewers as members of the public from assessing what the influences on these elected officials are.

Watch the full interview:

“Dark Money” reveals corrupt, distorted elections

READ MORE: Russian bots are back: #WalkAway attack on Democrats is a likely Kremlin operation

It's not just domestic. The way that it's set up now is we can't even tell if the money is coming from foreign entities.

You don't know where it's coming from, whether it's from within this country or outside of this country. It actually got lost in a lot of the hubhub with the election around 2016, it came out in September/October last year. There was a great story. They documented for the first time Chinese billionaires giving money to a super PAC that went to the Jeb Bush campaign. Part of the reason we didn't hear about it was because it was going to the Bush campaign and he dropped out soon after. That's something that we can trace. It gets really scary and we see hints of it all over the place that foreign money — I mean, we know that there was a lot of Russian money in the last election — has been given to influence American political campaigns.

All of us think, "I'm pretty smart, I go to the polls as an informed voter. I have these issues I care about." And yet this film makes it very clear how easy it is to manipulate us because what this comes down to isn't about manipulating the ballot boxes. This isn't about manipulating the results, it's literally about manipulating the minds of the voters, and also specifically, how do I get someone to vote for my guy.

What we do in the film is to take some of those dots that you just  laid out. A lot of us suspect that there are these different dots, but we never quite get them connected. What our film does is tell as simply as that story can get. And is still a pretty twisty-turny, convoluted mystery novel, but in as simple a manner as you can get that story. We laid out the dots and connected the dots. That just goes to show how this dark money shell game operates all the time. We showed the film in Nashville. A week before we showed the film at the Nashville Film Festival there was a ballot initiative where they were voting as to whether or not they should approve some new funding streams that would provide a public transportation system for Nashville. Some dark money came in it was pretty quickly identified as Koch brothers’ money. They often play in elections, having to do with public transportation. Let's just focus on that just for a second. Why do two brothers from Kansas City want to play in an election in Nashville? Shouldn't it be up to people on Nashville whether or not they want to have public transportation?

Let's just set that aside for a second, because there was another kind of trench of dark money that came into that election at the last second and nobody knew where it was coming from until some dogged reporters uncovered the fact that it was coming from the guy in town who owns the car dealerships. Surprise, surprise the guy who sells a bunch of cars in town doesn't want public transportation. I think that we should be able to have that debate about whether or not we should have public transportation in our town. The guy from the car dealership feels like should give him a voice in that debate, he should be able to argue as loud as he wants that we should not have public transportation. What I think is particularly galling about the way that anonymous money functions is that if one rich person, in this case, can hide their influence, hide where it's coming from, make it look like it’s this broad base grassroots political movement that totally distorts the will of the voter. All of a sudden one person who's got some money and the means to hide it is counterbalancing the votes of millions of people who live in that city.

Most of the film is really set in this small town in Montana and you use Montana as this great example of what happens with dark money and how it has been used, and the way that it can be uncovered. One thing that is very, very clear is this is an issue that affects both Republicans and Democrats. Both Republican and Democratic public servants have been affected by this, have had their careers torpedoed by this issue because it's not about these issues, it's about money and business interests.

A lot of times when money goes underground, the only reason that people are doing that is because they don't want to have their fingerprints on it. And usually it's because there's a really negative attack behind it that a candidate. Like if we're running against each other and I want to attack you, it may not look good for me to put my name on this attack ad because voters start to associate me with this negativity of campaigns. Attacking each other is distasteful; I don't want to be any part of that. What we're seeing more and more is that the negativity that comes in campaigns is coming from this anonymous money.

And the emotional aspect of it, the appeal to voters emotions and their single issues. You can be a business interest that really wants a particular attractive land or really wants the water rights to somewhere, but the mailers that start to go out are about that other candidate who believes that every woman should have an abortion. That candidate is going to take away your guns. And it comes from a group called Concerned Moms Against Sexual Predators or something like that.

"Mothers Against Child Predators" was one of the groups that we were looking at. They sent out mailers in the very last days of the election attacking a very conservative Republican who was an incumbent, who had ticked off some folks on the far right for one reason or another. He became the subject of some attacks for the postcard that you're probably referring to. They came from a group called Mothers Against Child Predators. They were comparing this elected official named John Ward to John Wayne Gacy because of a  vote to have debate on the floor about the death penalty. The guy was a very conservative Catholic. He didn't believe in the death penalty, he didn’t want to have a discussion and wanting to have that discussion about the death penalty made him equivalent to John Wayne Gacy.

Who was not from Montana. Who was not executed in Montana, who was not executed at any point in this guy's political career.

Nothing to do with anything, other than a way to tarnish this guy, and do so at the very last minute when he didn't have a chance to respond to it. It's all about corporate bombing people in the last phases of the election.

Who are Mothers Against Predators? It's not a bunch of concerned moms.

It was two people with a treasurer and post office box. They got three people to sign their name and that's all we know about them. For the most part, you can't even find that out until probably two years after the election cycle, so by the time you figure it out we're already on to the next election cycle and we can't do anything about that group.

This is not a new moment in American history, as the film points out. Guys with money getting their sticky fingers all over elections, and not just election. We're talking about loading up the courts, and it's also buying off the media. It's a venerable tradition in American politics. We had this moment in the 1970's where we set up a system to safeguard against that. Now not just since 2010, but in particular the last few years, that all seems to have just gone completely out the window. What changed and why aren't we outraged? Why aren't we doing what we were doing in the 70's or our parents and grandparents were, which is taking to the streets in fury about this?

I think the reason is obfuscation. Our movie is about intentional obfuscation. A lot of times the stories are just too cloaked in darkness that you can't even tell what's going on and the people who are pulling off these schemes know that people aren't going to pay attention. We saw that change in Montana. There's a political culture there that is based on a lot of press attention to it. I'm talking about from 2012 through when we finished shooting there in 2017. Hundreds of newspaper stories on the front page, above the fold, about campaign finance, about following the money and understanding what the influences are behind these people who are running for office or elected officials who hold office. Part of that comes because of Montana's rich history of being very skeptical of corporate money and politics. There arenot a lot of people that live there, it's incredibly rich in natural resources. So the story you see time and time again is people coming in from out of state to develop those resources, make money and then leave, leaving Montanans to clean up the mess, and a lot of times that's an environmental mess. I think that having that  baked into your DNA led to a political culture where people pay attention to this a lot.

It can happen anywhere. This film took six years to make and I think that's one of the main things that drove me. It's that we can show people how they flipped the script and really pass some very strong campaign finance laws and built a culture of running political campaigns that was cleaner than it used to be. We've gone down this road and we've seen the corruption that money in politics creates and we've found ways to clean up our elections. I just saw that by telling that story hopefully what we can do is inspire people in other states to follow that same game plan.

You make very clear in the film that the cost to politicians to people who want to be in public service for whatever reason. Everybody is affected by this. You show people who actually started out taking money from these groups and then when they didn't want to vote along a certain line were told, you have to or we're going to take you down.

You hear people talking about the role of lobbyists or the role of special interest and the influence that they can have on our politics, and that's very much true. There's always going to be special interest in lobbyists who are trying to press one issue or another as there should be. If you're an elected official, you should be listening to your constituency and sometimes that comes in expert kind of influence coming from people who work in that industry. So you listen to them and at least you know what the vested interest are there. What we're talking about, what we saw happen in Montana in the 2008/2010 elections, it's just a microcosm of what's going on nationwide. But what we saw is that we're not talking about lobbying. We're not talking about special interest trying to get elected officials to move one way or another. Wwe're talking about a dark money group having this whole campaign package where you as a candidate can go home and not do anything else for the rest of the election cycle and these folks would just run your campaign for you. The one thing that you can't do between an outside group — a dark money group and a candidate  is coordinate with each other, that spending has to be done independently of each other.

What we found was one group that was just running everything. We're talking about writing all the letters and creating all the postcards and printing all the postcards and mailing all the postcards, and penning a letter that was supposed to come from your spouse encouraging you, mailing all of that information. We haven't even started talking about the data that that involves. They had lists and spreadsheets that would tell you that each door you knocked on whether they were interested in Second Amendment issues or right to life issues or this or that. There’s very customized targeted voter data that a single candidate running for state office in Montana was just...  having access to that data was way beyond the means of any individual.

You have these candidates who seem to be from a small community, but they have got just absolutely almost insurmountable amounts of money behind them, so of course how's that election not going to be influenced? 

This is a film that is part of this beautiful body of work this year, of documentaries about courage and about standing up for what is right and about hope. This is a film that really also takes the view that we are not powerless, that we as voters and as concerned citizens do have an impact on our government. Can you talk a little about what we as concerned voters might be able to do on our own local and national levels?

The first thing is just get engaged. That almost sounds like a cliché, but it doesn't happen nearly enough. The number of people who vote is not high enough, there are a lot of disengaged voters that don't even pay attention to things.

Down ticket, vote in your local elections.

Absolutely, all the way down the ticket and having that voter engagement and that dialogue with your elected officials. That's how democracy works. It is incumbent upon you to get involved. There's even a lot of people who say that they're politically minded who aren't engaged enough in that dialogue. If you're feeling a little bit disengaged, there's always the local level that you can plug into, whether it's your city council or your school board. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where it really affects your day-to-day life more than anything else, so getting engaged is really crucial.

Our film also tells this parallel story about the importance of the press in order to follow these stories and to show where the money is coming from. That's the basic structure of our film, is us following an investigative reporter as he digs into this mystery novel. Not having a watchdog press that is paying attention to these issues is very detrimental to democracy as well. The motto for the Washington Post is "Democracy dies in darkness," and I have to agree with that. Supporting a press: like if you're in New York, subscribe to the New York Times, if you're Washington to the Washington Post. If you're in a smaller town, subscribe to that hometown newspaper. If you move to New York or Washington, still subscribe to your hometown newspaper, because that sort of active press coverage is what's really essential for this. In terms of solutions for people to really get involved in, I think our film points at that, there's a lot of organizations that are out there that are working on campaign finance reform.

There's some national ones like Common Cause and Every Voice that are really pushing to make democracy equal to every citizen so that you don't have this imbalance, that dark money that anonymous money, brings into our elections. The real key to all of this is to put power back in the hands of citizens. The way to do that is to keep candidates for office from talking only to millionaires at cocktail parties. There are some great ways to do that especially with public financing. If you have a pool of public financing, especially ones that match, like you're running for office in New York City is a good example. If you raised a hundred bucks from me and a hundred bucks from another person over there, if the city matches that hundred bucks, in New York City right now they talk about doing it six to one, they're thinking about bumping it up to eight to one. All of a sudden you having a conversation with an everyday person like me is going to be much more worth your while as a candidate than just going to cocktail parties with millionaires, so that is a really successful program. When you have small donor matching financing, public financing like that, what you see is more women running, more people of color running, you basically get something other than rich old white guys who control power, who pass that power on to a bunch of other rich old white guys. Yes, those are things that we can all do. We can always demand disclosure from our elected officials and make sure that we know where the money is coming from and they know that we're going to be voting on that issue. There's plenty of ways to get involved. We actually have a good list of it on our website, which is darkmoneyfilm.com. We have a page that's called Get Involved. There's a list of different organizations and ways to plug in, host screenings and things like that.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams