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Kai Ryssdal and Frontline investigate the 'Big Money' of Super PACs

Screen shot of a political ad featured in the PBS Frontline special
Screen shot of a political ad featured in the PBS Frontline special "Big Sky, Big Money."
PBS Frontline

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Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal teams up with PBS’s Frontline to investigate how independent groups are funneling millions of dollars into issue campaigns aimed at swaying elections.  

Take Two talks to Ryssdal about why the state of Montana has become the heart of the campaign finance fight.

Interview Highlights:

On the staggering amount of money ($9 billion) being spent on elections this year:
“The reason we’re seeing all this money is because of a case in the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago called Citizens United, which basically said companies and labor unions are free to spend as much money as they want on politics, independent of candidates and campaigns. So they can’t coordinate. But they can use union treasuries, they can use corporate treasuries, and they can spend as much as they want. So that’s where all the money is coming from.”

On the difference between a Super PAC’s and 501(c)(4)s:
“I think the key difference, at least for the purposes of our story, was that when you have a Super PAC, they have to register with the Federal Election Commission and they have to disclose their donors. These groups called 501(c)(4)s, they’re technically called ‘social welfare’ groups, they don’t have to tell anybody where they’re getting their money. And what’s happening now, is a lot of this money that’s coming in through this Citizens United case is going to these 501(c)(4)s. So we don’t know where a lot of this money that’s fueling politics in this election cycle specifically is coming from.”

On why Ryssdal chose to focus on the states of Montana:
“We went to Montana for two reasons. The first is that there is a U.S. Senate race there between John Tester, the democratic incumbent, and Denny Rehberg, the Republican challenger, he’s currently the congressman for Montana - they only have one. That Senate race could determine the fate of the entire U.S. Senate come election day. The other reason we went is that there is a lot of money going into Montana, into state and local races there, and they have one of the toughest - had I should say, one of the toughest anti-corruption laws, one of the toughest campaign finance laws in the country. And we wanted to see in essence whether these 501(c)(4) groups and all this outside money was being used to coordinate, in other words not independently being spent on campaigns.”

On Ryssdal’s interview with a conservative lawyer from Indiana, Jim Bopp who is known as the father of Citizen’s United:
“It was his legal theories that got Citizens United to the Supreme Court. He didn’t argue it but it is his baby. He is a guy who is obviously very Republican as you said, he’s conservative, he believes fundamentally that there should be no limits on money in politics in America. He says, and this is actually a good point, you guys always talk about outside groups influencing politics, well how can you have outside groups in politics. That’s what they are. That’s what we do. We participate in the political process. And if you limit the ability of people to participate in the political process by limiting what they can spend, that’s unconstitutional - we’ve got this thing called the First Amendment.”

More on Jim Bopp:
“His vision is that once Congressional incumbents realize all this money that’s going to these 501(c)(4) groups that we talked about, all this secret money, these incumbents, these members of Congress are going to say wait a second, we want that money. We don’t want to be lost in the message of these 501(c)(4)s. We want to be able to control the money and they’re going to lift campaign finance restrictions.

On how the people of Montana are feeling:
“They have a spirit of independence, and these people do not want outside interference. They don’t want people telling them who to vote for, they don’t want outside money coming in influencing their elections. They operate in a different news and political environment than people in Washington or L.A. or New York or San Francisco. They just don’t want people messing with their stuff.”

On a group called Western Tradition Partnering(WTP):
“Western Tradition Partnering (WTP) is group operating at the state and local level, out in the western United States, its operating in Colorado and Montana. And they went after John Ward, this guy you mentioned, he’s a Republican, they are a Republican group. But John Ward was not conservative enough for them. The focus of our report whether or not WTP was taking undisclosed cash, that is to say it’s a 501(c)(4), so were they taking this money that we don’t know the source of and using it to influence elections, which generally speaking they are not allowed to do.”

On tracking down WTP and other 501(c)(4) groups for Frontline:
“I tried to get these guys on the phone. I tried to get people from WTP on the phone and they wouldn’t talk to me. And Rick Young, my producer, said let’s do this, let’s just pull over on the side of the road and you’ll just call them and we’ll put the camera on you. These guys hung up on me or they wouldn’t answer. It was just fascinating. And then, we got to Washington and we tried to track down a different 501(c)(4) group and it dead ends in a PO Box in a UPS store on M Street in Washington DC. It’s a shell game, but it’s not a game - that’s the thing. I mean, this stuff is fundamentally important and the lesson, I think, out of this story is that the Supreme Court has decided that for now this kind of influence and money in politics is okay.”

On the evidence Ryssdal uncovered detailing an illegal coordination between the 501(c)(4), WTP, and a campaign:
“What we have in these boxes, and investigators from the state of Montana and the Montana attorney general’s office agrees with us, is evidence of coordination. We have financial documents. We have campaign documents. We have information that only candidates and their wives would know.”

On where these documents came from:
“These documents were stolen from a car in Denver, Colorado. They were then found in a meth house by a known meth addict, who had been living on the streets since he was eleven years old. He found them and got them to a lawyer in Denver, whose wife was a state Senator in Colorado. That guy, that lawyer then mailed them to Montana.”

On Ryssdal’s final interview with Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission:
“We sat him [Potter] down and we showed him some of these documents and he said, ‘you know what, as a former official of the election commission, this makes me want to know more. This makes me want to dig into it and discover whether the corruption that the Supreme Court says, money and politics does not bring, is actually present. This seems to be,’ Trevor Potter said, ‘corruption and evidence of it.’”