A new watchdog coalition targets Georgia ‘dark money’

A dark-money group has spent about $1.5 million on negative advertising against state Sen. David Shafer heading into his lieutenant governor’s runoff.
A dark-money group has spent about $1.5 million on negative advertising against state Sen. David Shafer heading into his lieutenant governor’s runoff.

A mix of politicians, activists and watchdog groups is preparing to launch a coalition to combat the growing influence of "dark money" in Georgia politics. It also triggered charges of hypocrisy involving one of the group's founding members.

The group, which has yet to name itself, pledges to find ways to monitor how much outside spending from unknown sources is being spent in Georgia and promote legislation to increase transparency.

Among the leaders are Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon, Sara Henderson of Common Cause Georgia, Kay Godwin of Georgia Conservatives in Action and William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs.

Also in the coalition is Debbie Dooley of the Atlanta Tea Party, who is being singled out by critics for her past stances on the issue. The coalition will meet for the first time Friday at 11 a.m. in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building.

Dark money is an increasingly potent force in state and U.S. elections. Nonprofit groups that can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions are spending vast sums to influence elections without being required to disclose donors.

In Georgia, dark money spending was likely the difference-maker in Geoff Duncan's upset victory over David Shafer in the July GOP runoff for lieutenant governor. Outside groups reported spending about $3 million to batter Shafer, who was long the favorite in the race. (A dark money group was also supporting Shafer to a lesser degree.)

That spending targeting Shafer has already triggered separate ethics complaints from Dooley and Perry seeking a state investigation into who was behind the attacks on Shafer.

But Dooley’s involvement stood out to some conservatives who recalled her past opposition to disclosure laws.

State Rep. Buzz Brockway said Dooley assailed his legislation to end dark money spending as a "plot to punish conservatives." And she also opposed a 2015 Senate measure that would have required some nonprofits to disclose donors, signing a letter saying it would limit the ability of nonprofits to "engage in public debates and political discourse."

Others pointed to her history of working with outside groups to target incumbents, including House Speaker David Ralston and Public Service Commissioner Tricia Pridemore

In an interview, Dooley said she complied with state election law and disclosed her participation in both those nonprofits. She added that she senses the tide of Georgia public opinion is shifting decidedly against dark money.

“If I hadn’t followed the rules, you could be sure that there would have been an ethics complaint against me,” she said. “Standing up for integrity is a conservative value, and people are demanding that these groups be held accountable.”

The coalition intends to file a sweep of new complaints targeting spurious spending. And it’s asking voters to share details of questionable mail pieces or curious TV ads that seem bound to pop through November.

“We are fully committed to use all mechanisms under current Georgia law to fight the abuse of transparency in this elections process, while working to strengthen Georgia law for future elections,” said Perry.

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