An engineering trade organization that advocates for privatizing government work has been tied to the group behind the $11 million dark money donation that prompted a legal showdown in California last fall.
The $400,000 that can now be traced back to a group called the American Council of Engineering Companies in California (ACEC-CA) may not be the biggest of disclosures, but when it comes to dark money in politics, any transparency at all is a revelation.
Campaign finance reports released last week in California show that the Sacramento, Calif.-based ACEC-CA wrote two checks to the conservative group Americans for Job Security in 2012, one in July for $150,000 and one in September for $250,000, which were described in disclosures to California’s Secretary of State as intended for “issue advocacy.”
The day before Election Day, California’s campaign finance watchdog agency revealed that Americans for Job Security was the source of an $11 million donation, made on Oct. 15, to ballot initiative efforts in California. The recipient of the money was a group called the Small Business Action Committee PAC (SBAC), which was opposing California’s Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-hike initiative, and supporting Proposition 32, which would have prohibited labor unions from raising political money through payroll deductions.
But Americans for Job Security hadn’t simply written a check to the SBAC. Instead, the money had been funneled through an Arizona dark money group called Americans for Responsible Leadership, with the help of yet another group, The Center to Protect Patient Rights, which has been tied to the movement of millions of dollars between political non-profits. As a dark money group, Americans for Responsible Leadership did not disclose its donors, prompting outcries from Democrats and progressives in the state. California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the watchdog agency, subsequently sued the group, which led to the eventual unmasking of Americans for Job Security. The watchdog agency said the transaction amounted to “campaign money laundering.”
While the ACEC-CA’s link to Americans for Job Security has now been revealed, there is no indication so far that the ACEC-CA’s donations to the Virginia-based group were specifically earmarked for the California ballot efforts.
On it’s website, the ACEC-CA describes itself as a “nonprofit association of private consulting engineering and land surveying firms … dedicated to enhancing the consulting engineering and land surveying professions, protecting the general public and promoting use of the private sector in the growth and development of our state.” The Sacramento Bee described the group on Tuesday as a group that backs “privatizing public infrastructure engineering.”
In an interview with the Bee, Paul Meyer, the executive director of the ACEC-CA, stood by the donation to Americans for Job Security.
“We completely believed and understood — and still believe and understand — that we were donating to an issue-advocacy effort,” Meyer said. “And so that’s why we appropriately, timely and fully reported to the secretary of state. We fully complied with the law.”
The Bee asked Meyer what issue his group had given $400,000 to advocate.
“The issue was really sort of money in politics,” he said. “Our members really don’t like the whole money-in-politics thing.”
Another California group, Professional Engineers in California Government, issued a press release Monday denouncing the ACEC-CA’s donation.
“ACEC’s actions are clear and reprehensible,” Steve Lee, president of Professional Engineers in California Government, said in a statement. “They sought to deny our schools desperately needed funding, silence middle class families, and evade California’s campaign finance laws. They should be ashamed.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com