Free speech should also mean full disclosure

04/06/2013 12:51 AM

05/20/2014 10:41 AM

The Koch brothers, David and Charles, may be interested in buying the Los Angeles Times. The news has prompted hand-wringing from some liberals, who bitterly oppose the brothers’ libertarian politics and their billions.

I’m not overly worried, though. Rich guy William Randolph Hearst had some pretty definite ideas as a newspaper publisher and somehow the republic survived.

Koch-level money is mom’s milk in politics. It can buy visibility for a message and access to elected officials. But its impact at the presidential level can be diluted by free media and cash from the other side.

That’s even true to a lesser extent at the state level. Retired businessman Rex Sinquefield has spent millions to support various candidates and causes in Missouri, with mixed results.

The key is disclosure. Cash’s power can be counterbalanced, at least in part, by public discussion of the moneybags’ role in trying to buy elections and politicians.

It’s often hard to find that discussion at the local level. That makes money more dangerous because a small investment can yield enormous benefits in low-visibility local races.

Last week, Americans for Prosperity-Kansas bought mailers opposing Mark Holland in the KCK mayor’s race. Last year, AFP spent cash on state legislative races in Kansas, which are similar to local campaigns.

How much did the group spend? We don’t know. As a nonprofit social welfare organization, AFP is exempt from disclosing its donors and filing independent spending reports for local races.

But records suggest AFP-Kansas isn’t a stand-alone entity. It’s just a chapter of the national AFP office. And that means the national AFP, founded by David Koch, had a direct interest in the KCK mayor’s race.

Why? A guess: Defeating Holland would have damaged outgoing mayor Joe Reardon, one of only a few Democrats who might pose a threat to Gov. Sam Brownback.

And the Kochs’ support of Brownback is unquestioned.

In 1996, an obscure entity called Triad Management spent $400,000 on ads that might have saved Brownback’s political career. Democrats later claimed Triad got some of its money from the Kochs. The brothers deny it.

We don’t know the truth, which is why campaign reporting loopholes must be closed at every level of politics.

We all have the right to say almost anything we want, but voters have a right to know who’s paying for that speech.

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