Secret Money Puts Our Health and Safety at Risk

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Scott Walker giving a speech at a podium with an American flag in the background.
June 05, 2012 - Waukesha, WI, USA - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker makes his acceptance speech after winning the gubernatorial recall election. Photo by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo.

Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money to secretly influence or vote and our government to rig the political system in their favor. We need to know if our elected officials might be tempted to serve their wealthy donors instead of listening to our voices on the issues that matter most to our long-term health.

Secret money from wealthy special interests puts our health and safety at risk.

For instance, in Wisconsin, former Gov. Scott Walker and Republican state senators were facing recall elections between 2011 and 2012. Harold Simmons, who was then the Corporate Executive Officer (CEO) of NL Industries, a lead producer of lead paint, used the shell corporation Wisconsin Club for Growth to funnel $750,000 to Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican Senators to help them win.

Around that time, Wisconsin also signed into law multiple bills that granted immunity to lead manufacturers from any compensation claims for lead paint poisoning. This legislation not only prevented new lawsuits from being filed but also retroactively halted existing lawsuits filed by those who had experienced lead poisoning.

Among those affected were 170 Milwaukee children who were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead between 2006 and 2011. Exposure to lead paint produced by NL Industries and other similar companies harmed these children’s cognitive abilities and for a few of them, proved to be very nearly fatal.

All of this happened despite the fact that Wisconsin has a strong legal precedent for providing justice to those who experience lead poisoning. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court established the risk contribution theory, which places the burden of proof on the companies to show that they were not selling harmful lead paints at the time that the plaintiffs experienced lead poisoning.

Traditionally, plaintiffs have had to prove that a specific company caused their lead poisoning.

For other Milwaukeeans in the same boat, using the risk contribution theory could finally allow them to obtain the justice they deserve. Last year, a federal court decided to award $6 million in damages to three Milwaukee men who had suffered lead poisoning as children because three companies had “acted unreasonably in marketing lead paint without proper warnings of its danger to poison children.”

But while Milwaukeeans who experienced lead poisoning as children may finally be able to receive legal remedy, the fundamental problem of unlimited, secret spending in our political system persists.

In 2019, a report by the Center for Responsive Politics found that “Secret donor-funded ‘dark money’ spending reported to the Federal Election Commission has officially exceeded $1 billion.” When groups that keep some donors hidden are taken into account, that number grows to upward of $2 billion since the 2006 election cycle.

This means that what happened in Wisconsin could potentially happen elsewhere around the country. With wealthy donors continuing to pump large sums of money into political campaigns, candidates could feel compelled to put their donors’ interests ahead of their voters’ health and safety once in office.

Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money to secretly influence or vote and our government to rig the political system in their favor. Fortunately, there is a Congressional bill that could give voters this much needed information and increase the transparency of the campaign finance system.

The For the People Act, otherwise known as H.R. 1, would require groups spending in elections to disclose donors that contribute over $10,000 and clamp down on unlimited, secret money being funneled through shell corporations.

H.R. 1 could decrease the influence of money in politics and create a political system that works better for everyday Americans. Real transparency about who is spending big money on elections will mean more government accountability, less influence for wealthy special interests and less political corruption.

Georgia is the 2020 CLC Communications Fellow