BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. As Facebook's travails with fake news and Russian-paid political advertising make obvious, ceding basic democratic functions to digital juggernauts can subvert the political process. But you don't need data mining to muck with democracy. Facebook is only 14 years old. For the past more than a century, rich special interests have been corrupting American politics the old-fashioned analog way, with cash money, especially since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling that ended restrictions on spending by corporations, labor unions, and so on, on political campaigns.
Since that money is now unlimited, it has soared and with it the amount of money entirely out of public view, which the Court declined to address. They call it “dark money,” the scourge of transparent politics. But what does it actually look like? That’s what a new documentary called Dark Money seeks to find out, and it does so by zeroing in on the struggle that has taken place over the last few years in the state of Montana.
JOHN ADAMS, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: I don’t know how to fight ‘em, I don’t know how to argue with them. I can’t debate ‘em. I can’t interview ‘em. I can’t pick up the phone and say, hey, what’s your interest in Candidate X, ‘cause I don’t know who they are. We’ll never know.
BOB GARFIELD: When Director Kimberly Reed wanted to root out
corruption in the campaign finance system, she went straight to her native Montana.
KIMBERLY REED: In grade school, every kid in Montana learns about the copper kings, about this battle between three influential guys in Butte, Montana who were all trying to control the copper mines. One who kind of won that out was William A. Clark. He also had an interest in politics and decided that he was gonna get there by openly bribing all of the legislators in Montana. This was at a time when state legislators elected senators. So he just bought ‘em off. He put ads in his own papers, which he owned, so that he could own the legislators who would vote for him to go to Washington, DC.
That actually led to the 17th Amendment, which declared that senators would be directly elected by the people who live in a state, instead of the legislators.
Knowing this history, knowing of these battles between the copper kings, you kind of develop [LAUGHS] some healthy skepticism about the role in outside money in politics.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Montana had healthy skepticism and some of the toughest campaign finance and oldest campaign finance laws in the country.
KIMBERLY REED: It all goes back to the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which essentially stated that, look, we have seen the corrupting effects that corporate control of our politics have and we will, therefore, ban corporate contributions to political campaigns. That stood for about a hundred years, until Citizens United rolls around. So at the time, Attorney General Steve Bullock led the charge to defend Montana's 100-year-old law.
ATTY. GENERAL STEVE BULLOCK: What we have in this record is an act that was passed by the people to address corporate corruption. And it’s more than just the history, it’s also the present.
KIMBERLY REED: All Bullock was seen was that, look, in Montana we've seen this story before. We know what happens when big money comes in from out of states and gets involved in our politics. That's why we created the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, and we think that that should hold sway in Montana.
That did not hold sway. [LAUGHS]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia backed Montana's effort but in a short half-page decision today the Court's five most conservative justices said the state law violated the free speech rights of corporations.
KIMBERLY REED: This is actually where I thought the film was going to start. I thought that we’re gonna have a quick six-month film about the State of Montana goes to Washington, overturning Citizens United. That is not what happened. Instead of six months, it took me about six years.
BOB GARFIELD: But in that six years, something extraordinary did happen. You were working with an investigative reporter named John Adams, formerly of the Great Falls Tribune, who was working similar turf and between you, you found a narrative that showed the very particulars about how all of this dark money works.
KIMBERLY REED: As we were following the influence of dark money in Montana, the name that kept popping up again and again and again was Western Tradition Partnership, which then actually changed its name to become American Tradition Partnership. It was clear that they were supporting a lot of Republican candidates in the 2010 primary, and one of those candidates was Art Wittich, who ended up becoming the Senate Majority Leader. After we dug a little bit at who was really behind American Tradition Partnership, it turns out that they were a front group for the National Right to Work Committee, an antiunion group that's run out of Virginia.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you found this out through the most unlikely means. [LAUGHS] You got some leaked documents, or I don't know if even “leaked” is the right word, but it started in a car burglary out of state.
KIMBERLY REED: A bunch of documents regarding the 2008 and 2010 campaigns were found in a stolen car. The documents somehow left that stolen car and somehow ended up in Denver, Colorado in something that everybody refers to as --
MAN: A meth house that was being raided by the police, and someone who was there was heading out the window and grabbed file boxes with these documents.
MAN: And then apparently someone turned those documents over to a state senator in Colorado.
KIMBERLY REED: Who mails them to the commissioner of political practices in Montana.
BOB GARFIELD: This is a kind of deus ex machina development but, nonetheless, these documents were smoking guns of the direct kind of string pulling of Western Tradition Partnership and American Tradition Partnership and included a play-by-play for how the local candidates should run their campaigns and provided the materials to do that, which, still, even in a Citizens United universe, is illegal.
KIMBERLY REED: The one thing that you still can't do is coordinate but what was going on in these documents that we found was how these third-party groups were gonna run the campaign for the candidates.
MAN: Advice on how to run your campaign, how to talk to the press, professionally written website, campaign slicks, life letter, gun letter, right-to-work letter, just a carpet bombing in the last few weeks before the election.
KIMBERLY REED: There's a line from one of their PowerPoint presentations, something to the effect that you can just go home, put your feet up and watch the election results roll in.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, these documents emerged in the hands of a dinky little Montana state agency, under resourced, understaffed, whose job it is to monitor campaign finance in the state. And they were not idle. They actually used it as the basis of a case against the legislator, Art Widdich.
KIMBERLY REED: That’s correct. Thanks to the recent appointment of a commissioner of political practices who took his job really seriously, Jonathan Motl tried to, to get to the bottom of this.
BOB GARFIELD: And Art Widdich’s testimony [LAUGHS], which we see in the film, was Moi? Coordination, no, no, no, I, I scarcely knew these people existed.
ART WIDDICH: I don’t remember ever seeing this.
QUESTION: I’m looking at the documents that have been provided, and whether you meant to or not, it looks like you filled out A through D, correct?
ART WIDDICH: I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t think --
QUESTION: Okay. All right, that’s fine if you don’t know.
BOB GARFIELD: But the evidence was overwhelming.
KIMBERLY REED: That’s right, and 10 out of 12 members of the jury found that Mr. Widdich had violated campaign finance law in Montana.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: State lawmaker Art Widdich of Bozeman faced the judge today to hear his penalties for accepting illegal corporate campaign contributions.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: While the judge did not remove Rep. Widdich from office, somebody else already has, the voters of his district. He lost the Republican primary ten days ago and his term expires this December.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s this dramatic scene in the movie where there is a supposed “town hall” being sponsored by the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity that nominally was to give information on the coming doom of Medicaid expansion but was really kind of politicking against the incumbent Republican legislator. So it’s a roomful of Republicans and suddenly they realize that the -- this game is rigged.
MAN: Say, wait a second, what’s goin’ on here? What’s goin’ on here?
MAN: This isn’t a public forum, ladies and gentlemen. They’re only gonna tell you some BS and you’re gonna have no chance to talk. If Jeff Welburn walks, I walk. Bye.
BOB GARFIELD: So these are Republicans who came to a Republican meeting and, and shouted down the dark money guy. Many of them walked out of the town hall.
KIMBERLY REED: Money in politics, it, it’s not a left or right issue, and I think that’s reflective of what's going on in the rest of the nation. Montana is just a microcosm when it comes to this. But I really think the campaign finance is gonna move in the same way that marriage equality moved, at a local grassroots level, that it's gonna start with this city council over here and that city council over here and then a school board and then some more school boards and then a state is gonna come behind it, like Montana did, like California did, and pretty soon, we're gonna have a tipping point.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t want to puncture your hope balloon here but the Koch brothers, for example, have poured most of their vast treasure spent on politics in the United States in state legislatures to pack them [LAUGHS] with conservative Republicans to sustain the very system that you would like to see dismantled. So that’s a tough row to hoe, is it not?
KIMBERLY REED: It, it’s a tough row to hoe. And the really scary thing is what you're seeing is dark money operating not only in candidate elections, not only on these two- to four-year cycles when people are running for office, what you’re seeing is the influence of dark money to effect policy once officials are elected. But the scene that we love in the film, of everyday citizens standin’ up and walkin’ out on a Koch brothers-funded AFP town hall, I don't think that other states are too far away from paying that same sort of attention. Montana shows that there is a lot of hope because of you pay attention to these issues, if you vote on them, if you hold your elected officials accountable, that you can actually turn the tide. And you can turn the tide in a state that Mr. Trump won by 20 points.
BOB GARFIELD: Kim, thank you very, very much.
KIMBERLY REED: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Kimberly Reed is the director of the forthcoming documentary Dark Money, which will reach theaters in July and then be viewed in the fall on PBS's POV.