One of the primary concerns of good government groups is that donations could be channeled (or “laundered”) through an intermediary by a lobbyist or special interest group seeking to contribute to OFA. For example, an unscrupulous lobbyist could tell a client—or a member of his or her own firm who is not registered to lobby—to make a major contribution to OFA, which would then be written off as a business expense or reimbursed through a salary increase or bonus.
“This is ripe for Jack Abramoff style lobbyists to find other ways to channel the money,” said Edgar, the president of Common Cause.
Contributions channeled through straw donors have sparked scandals in the past, such as the criminal prosecution surrounding the Buddhist monks who were listed as Clinton-Gore donors in their 1996 reelection campaign. But these scandals came to light in large part because of the detailed disclosures required by the Federal Election Commission, which offered a clear record of the donations in question. In the case of OFA, the quality and even the fact of disclosure is entirely voluntary, as is the prohibition on accepting corporate and lobbyist cash.
“There’s no legal enforcement mechanism,” said Lisa Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation. “Except for the public outcry if they took money that they said they wouldn’t take, there’s no ramifications” for OFA if it receives contributions funneled from special interest groups.
3) In-kind Contributions
OFA has said that it will not take money from corporations or lobbyists, but major companies have already provided the group with valuable in-kind contributions. In-kind contributions can include hosting or sponsoring events, or otherwise offering facilities, goods or services free of charge.
The January conference in which OFA was unveiled to donors, reported Politico’s Kenneth Vogel, was sponsored by a trade association called Business Forward. Business Forward is funded by influential corporations including Walmart, Microsoft and PG&E, each of which sent representatives to participate in the event.
OFA has not indicated that it will disclose in-kind contributions, and it is not known if they have received such contributions for today’s “founders summit.”
4) Delayed Disclosure
OFA president Messina has pledged that the group will disclose its donors, and the amount of their contributions, on a quarterly basis. But that may be too long a delay to shed light a contribution’s influence before the donor has already gotten what he or she wanted. A federal agency may change a rule or award a contract, or a bill may move through Congress, sufficiently quickly that the outcome is decided before the relevant donations have been disclosed.
Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation called on OFA to adopt “real time reporting” of its contributions and expenditures. “For me there’s no good reason to delay disclosure at all,” she said.
As OFA kicks into gear, reporters across the country should keep their eyes open to see whether its financial practices are living up to the grassroots rhetoric that it has employed to describe its founding summit tonight.
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