When Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was merely Candidate Eric Greitens, the Republican didn’t have a subtle opinion about secret money in his state’s politics.
During an appearance on St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking in 2016, the former Navy SEAL emphasized how proud he was that the state’s voters could see every single donation coming into his campaign. In fact, he even accused his Republican adversaries of using secretive groups to attack him – and other Missouri politicians.
“We’ve already seen other candidates set up these secretive super PACs where they don’t take any responsibility for what they’re funding,” Greitens said during the January 2016 interview. “And there will probably be more, because that’s how the game has always been played.”
Somewhere along the way, Greitens’ outrage subsided. His successful campaign got the support of several “secretive super PACs” with mysterious funding sources. More recently, some of his campaign staff joined A New Missouri, a nonprofit group organized under 501(c)(4) of the tax code that doesn’t have to reveal its donors or say how its spending money.
“The organization that you’re referring to is one that I have no day-to-day responsibilities with,” Greitens said when asked about the group during a bill signing ceremony in April. “It does represent the interests of thousands of people around the state who care about our priorities getting passed.”
Optics aside, Greitens isn’t the only governor connected to supportive nonprofit organizations.
Groups in Arizona, Illinois and Georgia have sprung up to help the states’ governors, while avoiding traditional donation requirements. Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics said the groups are the “unlimited, undisclosed arm of the administration that basically … bolsters the agenda of the governor.”
Many 501(c)(4)s were created over the years to help push specific issue or ideological causes. But more recently, the state-based nonprofits came to life to help individual candidates. Since most states don’t require 501(c)(4) to reveal much about what they’re doing, they’ve become increasingly popular fundraising mechanisms to help governors.
“It’s not just that it’s unlimited, but it’s also undisclosed,” said Robert Maguire, a political nonprofit investigator for the Center for Responsive Politics. “I doubt they want the public to know who’s funding them – particularly if they’re actual corporations that have any sort of business before the administration.”
But A New Missouri did more than produce glossy advertisements pumping up Greitens’ agenda.
After a particularly tense week in the Missouri legislature, the group started running web ads attacking Republican state senator Rob Schaaf, who is sponsoring legislation that would require politically-active nonprofits to reveal their donors.
Not only did the ads say disparaging things about the veteran lawmaker, but they also gave out his personal cell phone number. Schaaf’s voicemail quickly got clogged with people calling from around the country.
The group’s hardball tactics have made Schaaf more of an outspoken critic against the governor and his political staff. He said Greitens is coming off as a hypocrite, especially since he promised to clean up Missouri’s ethical culture.
“He could say ‘I’m going to the White House and not use dark money – and prove it can be done.’ And he will go farther and faster doing that than if he clings to using this dark money,” said Schaaf, alluding to how many Missouri political observers assume Greitens has his eyes on the presidency. “I think it’s critical he do this. If he doesn’t do this, they’re just going to eventually label him as just another corrupt politician.”
But that idea is running into opposition from conservative groups, and Republican activists like Gregg Keller.
Keller worked for one of Greitens’ opponents last year and runs a 501(c)(4) called the Missouri Century Foundation. He argues that political donors should be able to give to the groups of their choice without revealing their identity.
“The left is becoming very expert at targeting companies and individuals. Look at the Kochs,” Keller said, referring to prolific conservative political donors Charles and David Koch. “Koch has become a bad name. Because the left has become very adept at attacking people who stand up for what they believe. And I think that people shouldn’t be subject to that.”
That argument may win the day in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly. But Republicans aren’t the only ones to using nonprofit groups to advance their agenda.
Earlier this year, a group called Campaign for Accountability formally asked a U.S. Attorney to investigate whether Missouri Senate President Ron Richard filed a bill in exchange for campaign donations. But that group declined to disclose its contributors or who suggested that they file the complaint. (Campaign for Accountability is a 501(c)(3), which is a different type of nonprofit group than A New Missouri. Richard has strongly denied he did anything illegal.)
A push but Missouri to get money out of politics by putting donation limits on candidates for state office may also funnel more money into politically active nonprofit groups, said Democratic fundraiser Angela Bingaman.
“It has definitely become more of a conversation with candidates and groups about how to import more money into the political process now that we have limitations on what we can and cannot do,” Bingaman said.
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jo Mannies contributed to this story.