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‘Dark Money’ opens in St. Louis, sheds light on increasingly untraceable financing of politics

Protestors against dark money make their presence known in Washington.
Dark Money, a PBS Distribution release
Protestors against dark money make their presence known in Washington.

With a growing lack of transparency clouding money’s influence on politics around the United States, a new film digs into the issue by zooming in on one state in particular: Montana.

Why Montana? The choice of setting came down to three factors: the presence of whistleblowers, diligent enforcers of campaign-finance law and a watchdog press.

“We could actually tell the story there,” the documentary’s director, Kimberly Reed, said Friday on St. Louis on the Air.

In conversation with host Don Marsh as well as local constitutional attorney Elad Gross, Reed talked about the widespread concerns that led to the creation of “Dark Money,” which explores the impact of anonymous political donations and opens at the Tivoli Theatre this weekend.

Kimberly Reed is the director of the film.
Credit Courtesy of Claire Jones
Kimberly Reed is the director of the film.

“A lot of the times, these groups are very difficult to detect … they claim to be independent – they claim to be operating independently of a candidate,” Reed said. “But basically, the secret is out: These groups are exploiting loopholes like this again and again.”

Gross, who was formerly the assistant attorney general of Missouri, noted that dark money effectively “circumvents the campaign-finance laws” intended to keep political campaigns transparent and hold candidates accountable.

“A lot of these organizations are set up as independent, nonprofit organizations, and they use the benefits of our tax laws in addition to that,” he said. “They’re supposed to be making independent expenditures, but as we saw here in Missouri with A New Missouri incorporated, it was an organization set up by Greitens campaign staff members that openly said, ‘We are here to support the agenda of the governor.’”

Such strategies are becoming more and more commonplace, according to Reed.

“If you’re gonna run a political campaign, you’ve gotta have a dark-money group, gotta have a super PAC,” she said. “And now we’re seeing candidates bounce money back and forth between those two with pretty reckless abandon in an effort to launder the money.”

Elad Gross is a constitutional attorney and former assistant attorney general of Missouri.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Elad Gross is a constitutional attorney and former assistant attorney general of Missouri.

  When Marsh questioned whether people care enough about the issue to be motivated to change the status quo, Gross said his own conversations around the region suggest that people really are.

“I was listening to the last story that you just had on, and I gotta say, I got really fired up,” he explained. “Because I was thinking about it, and I’ve been working with kids in the city of St. Louis for about 10 years now.

“It was the reason that I got involved in the law, and it’s the reason that I’m probably in this room right now – is because this is what you get when folks hijack your government, when your government is no longer responsive to people who are in public-housing projects, when it’s no longer responsive to people in north St. Louis City, or you have rural hospital closures all over the state. There are folks who are no longer being represented by their government, because our government is beholden to people with money and power, and now we don’t even know who they are.”

Anonymous donations may well include foreign money, Reed added, which is a funding source that “everybody agrees” should have zero influence on the outcome of U.S. elections.

“I think that Americans really understand that if money is anonymous, then you’re just not going to have fair elections,” she said. “And that fundamental sense of fairness is something that we saw appealing to voters regardless of their political stripes.”

Related Event
What: Screenings of “Dark Money”
When: August 17-30, 2018 (various showtimes)
Where: Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63130)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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