Virginia's Hidden Money

Friday, October 21, 2005

VIRGINIA'S CAMPAIGN finance laws impose no restrictions on how much corporations, political action committees or individuals can give to candidates. But the laws, while less than watertight, do seek to compel the disclosure of donors' identities. In the current campaign for statewide offices, however, at least one candidate has been the beneficiary of large sums whose original source remains mysterious.

The candidate is state Sen. Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach, the Republican running in the only attorney general's race in the country this year. His opponent on the Nov. 8 ballot is Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County. Mr. McDonnell's campaign has benefited from a major cash infusion -- nearly $1 million, much of it in recent weeks -- that has enabled him, among other things, to broadcast TV ads in the expensive Northern Virginia market. The money has come from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a tax-exempt organization that has been active in other states. The problem is that the PAC established by the RSLC in Virginia has listed the source of that money as its parent organization -- the RSLC itself -- but has not disclosed the original donors.

Democrats suspect, without offering any proof, that the RSLC is concealing huge "pass-through" donations from Pat Robertson, an ally and political mentor of Mr. McDonnell. Mr. McDonnell is a graduate of the law school of Regent University, a Christian institution founded by Mr. Robertson. The televangelist makes no secret of his support, having given $36,000 directly to the McDonnell campaign, its second-largest donation from an individual. But asked if Mr. Robertson had also given money to the RSLC, his spokesman said he was "in the midst of special programming" this week and unavailable for comment.

The McDonnell campaign says it does not know the identity of the RSLC donors. The RSLC says its donors are writers of small checks as well as large corporations that see an ally in Mr. McDonnell and a potential adversary in Mr. Deeds, who they fear would bring an anti-corporate agenda to office. The Democrats may be dead wrong to suspect that Mr. Robertson is behind the RSLC contributions. But given the lack of timely public disclosure, how would anyone know? Republicans say the sources of recent RSLC contributions need not be made public until next year; they also say the Democrats are equally guilty of such shenanigans, although proof of that has not been forthcoming in the current Virginia races.

In response to Democratic complaints, the Virginia Board of Elections said this week that groups such as the RSLC's Virginia committee should itemize contributions of more than $100 and report any contribution above $10,000 on the board's Web site within three business days. But the board's "guidance" carries little weight given its lack of enforcement authority. Whether or not the RSLC's donations and disclosures are legal, they are plainly evading the intent of Virginia law, which stresses disclosure of all donors giving more than $100 to campaigns. If the RSLC continues to hide its contributors, will the McDonnell campaign itself ask for their identities and disclose them? That would be in keeping with the law's spirit and with the goal of an open political process.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company