Streams

Opinion: How to Blow the Whistle on Big Money

Monday, March 26, 2012 - 10:20 AM

Citizens United allows corporations to use money to influence elections. So a group of progressive organizations is using money to influence corporations.

To expose and shame companies that secretly use their corporate treasuries to fund unaccountable SuperPACs, the coalition of organizations is using a good old-fashion market incentive: cash. Surely, the executives they are targeting can appreciate that approach.

The $25,000 bounty is aimed at luring a corporate employee to turns whistle-blower, exposing their employer's shrouded investment in this year's political campaigns. The reward may be small change compared to the amount that SuperPAC donors are already pouring into the system to back Presidential hopefuls by trashing their rivals, but could a little bit of well-directed and well-intended money help shame companies, reshape the debate and turn corporate cash toxic?

The players behind the initiative range from traditional good-government groups like Common Cause, to the labor force SEIU to the the netroots powerhouse MoveOn.org, as well as New York City's own Public Advocacy Bill de Blasio. The array of backers show how many stake-holders are concerned with the impact of Citizens United -- including groups who themselves seek to influence elections such as the SEIU and MoveOn.org. But they are operating with the belief that if all corporations had to act publicly, maybe they would act less.

This group isn't the first to incentivize exposure. With a bigger chunk of change, Larry Flynt has once again issued a call for evidence of improprieties -- sexual and financial -- by members of Congress. His bounty is $1 million -- but of course he stands to make his investment back in ad revenue, while the good government groups are hoping cleaner elections are their profit.

Whether this approach will work to find whistle-blowers ($25,000 isn't nothing, but it doesn't cover the legal fees or lost wages the employee might face), the bigger question is whether the Flyntization of progressive politics is good policy. Could it lead to James O'Keefe style gotcha guerilla tactics? Could it encourage fraudulent fortune-seekers?

If so, that might actually be a good thing. Whistle-blowers shouldn't go the O'Keefe route of selective reporting and outright fabrication -- and no groups are encouraging that at this time. But if a little cash on the table makes everyone more cautious -- even if nobody ever reaps the reward -- maybe it will close corporate coffers and open elections for the rest of us.

It may be impossible to get money out of politics, and we're a far way from closing the Pandora's Box the Supreme Court opened two years ago. But exposing corporate money is a first step toward slowing it. And getting the public talking about corporate cash may make brand-conscious companies think twice about who and what they're associating their logo with.

Nothing like a little market pressure. It's the American way.

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