Jack Staver, one of the speakers against the TSPLOST referendum in 2012, would have to disclose donors to his advocacy groups under a bill in the General Assembly backed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

AJC Watchdog: House speaker wants light on Georgia’s secret political spending

Jack Staver is one of a growing number of organized activists at the State Capitol who are influencing public policy, but odds are you’ve never heard of him.

With a little poking around, you could find out that Staver is a conservative activist out of Woodstock and was deeply involved in the fight to defeat the 2012 transportation tax referendum in metro Atlanta. You might find one of his websites inviting you to donate to his work. If you are extremely diligent, you could even discover that the organizations he is affiliated with track back to a UPS mailbox in Roswell.

What you won’t find are campaign disclosures showing where he gets money to pay for his work or how he spends it. That’s why House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, calls Staver and other activists “mystery groups,” funded by what’s commonly called “dark money.”

Lawmakers are lobbied by every conceivable interest on a near daily basis. Representatives from the state’s hospitals, car dealers and the Chamber of Commerce bend ears daily. Later, legislators receive healthy checks from the same interests to fund their next campaign, or if they are uncooperative those donations might go to an opponent.

We know this because state law requires these groups to register with the state and disclose at least a portion of their spending for all to see. Taxpayers fund the government agency charged with keeping track of this spending, and my colleagues and I regularly report on it for the public. These groups also register their lobbyists who sport small, but visible, badges that identify them as such.

Not so with dozens of activists who line the Capitol halls every year. State and federal laws do not require these groups to explain how much they spend or who funds their activism. Many of these groups define themselves as “social welfare” organizations, rather than political committees, or say they are individual activists acting on their own behalf. Yet their purpose is to influence public policy, just like candidates, lobbyists and other regulated groups that disclose donor information to the public.

When the legislative session is over, these issue groups often turn their efforts toward the next election cycle, making good on threats to try and unseat incumbents. In Georgia, the most effective of these groups come from the political right, including the various tea party groups and a collection of political gadflies who operate mailing lists and social media campaigns to pressure the Legislature.

Two years ago, activists angry with Ralston tried to defeat him in the Republican primary, with one tea party leader going so far as to rent a cabin in Ralston’s North Georgia district to better direct efforts against him.

Ralston hasn’t forgotten, and he’s the hand behind House Bill 370, which would require influence groups to disclose their donations and expenses when their efforts could be construed to be aimed at a particular politician, party or ballot question.

“We’ve allowed these groups to come in and take very aggressive roles in political campaigns with no transparency with no accountability,” he said in an interview this week.

Staver said the bill is a direct attack on free speech by self-interested politicians.

“It’s a threat to them and their power. As we start to take incumbents out … they lose their power base,” he told me.

The bill passed the House 166-6, but when it reached the Senate Ethics Committee earlier this month activists rallied against it with exactly the kind of behavior Ralston abhors. People like Staver activated their networks to call and email committee members opposing the bill.

Staver sent a warning about HB 370 to the people on his email list that featured a picture of Benjamin Franklin with tape over his mouth and the warning, “Don’t let them kill free speech in Georgia tomorrow!” The mailer listed the members of the Senate committee.

“They got a ton of phone calls,” Staver crowed. “They don’t like phone calls and they don’t like visits.”

Apparently it worked. The committee members pledged to pull the offending language from the bill.

Staver said he is a self-funded activist. Forcing him to register and disclose his finances is just an attempt to stifle him. He’s disappointed that the effort comes from the GOP-dominated House.

“It’s mostly Republicans,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to fight your own party, but we have to because you can’t fix stupid.”

Georgia actually is behind the curve on this. Dozens of states have either already passed legislation requiring more disclosure of “dark money” groups or are entertaining legislation to do so, despite the fact that influential political voices, like the conservative Heritage Foundation, oppose it.

Donor lists for non-profit, social welfare organizations have a long history of secrecy. And for a reason with roots in the Deep South. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP could not be required to turn over its donor list to the state of Alabama.

In that ruling, the court said making the NAACP’s lists public would discourage the group’s civil rights activities and drive away members afraid “of the consequences of this exposure.” In 1958, that meant the threat of violence from baton-wielding state police or the Ku Klux Klan to silence dissent.

The political value of “social welfare” groups exploded in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that these non-profits can spend unlimited amounts of money on political speech but do not have to disclose their donors.

Conservative activists are on the offensive saying states are just trying to crush grassroots opposition.

Ralston said that’s absurd.

There are no limits proposed in HB 370, he said. “We’re simply saying tell us who you are so the public can judge fairly who’s supporting who and who’s opposing who. To me, it’s just fundamentally fair,” he said.

HB 370 still has to pass the Senate. If it does, Ralston indicated he will push to restore the disclosure provisions. If that happens “we’re going to know who they are, we’re going to know where they are from,” he said. “We’re going to be able (to know) what their interest is.”

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.