$1.7 million of mystery money finances Alabama governor’s campaign | #elections | #alabama

This is an opinion column.

On March 31, a mysterious entity called Get Families Back to Work Inc. gave $750,000 to Kay Ivey’s campaign.

At the time, that was the single-largest political contribution anyone had made to a candidate for state office, at least since the Secretary of State digitized records in 2013.

I’ve reached out to a handful of Alabama political pros who told me they couldn’t remember one before 2013 that was bigger, and after several days of digging through old paper filings, I couldn’t find one, either.

However, the distinction of the single-largest contribution didn’t last long — because a week later Get Families Back to Work did it again. On April 7, it gave another $750,000 to Ivey’s campaign.

And on April 28, Get Families Back to Work made another money drop on the governor, but this time a paltry $250,000.

All together, Get Families Back to Work has given the governor $1.75 million.

Or to put that another way, of every dollar the governor has raised this election cycle, a quarter came from Get Families Back to Work.

And here’s the thing — there’s no way to tell where it’s coming from. It’s mystery money from a Virginia-based 501(c)(4). A dark money group.

Whoever it is, they don’t want you to know where the money is coming from, and Kay Ivey doesn’t mind taking it as long as you don’t get to see who’s giving it to her.

However, we aren’t completely without clues.

Get Families Back to Work has an address on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. It happens to be the same address as the Republican Governors Association. Several of its incorporators also work for the RGA.

I called the RGA to see if they knew who this was using their address as their place of business. The man who answered the phone seemed helpful and not at all confused when I asked to speak to someone from Get Families Back to Work — at least until I said I was a reporter.

That’s when he told me I would have to email their spokesperson.

Recently, I made a small pagan idol out of my 3-year-old’s Play-Doh, a portly little deity I’ve named Boojie. (I meant for Boojie to be a snowman, but my lack of sculpting talent took things in a different direction.) From now on, when organizations such as the RGA hand me off to PR flacks, I’m going to take a ritual shot of whatever spirit I find in the cabinet, place a sacrificial saltine cracker at the tiny god’s feet, and pray for Boojie to give me answers.

Then I’m going to see who comes through first.

We’re only one round into this experiment, but so far it’s a tie. (I have to give Boojie the benefit of the doubt, though, as I haven’t built him a proper altar and the dog ate his cracker.)

Having made one phone call and sent two emails to the RGA without any answer, I decided to try someone else. I called Ivey’s campaign manager, Will Califf.

Perhaps the hardest part about being a political journalist in Alabama is trying to spell the sounds people make when they struggle for a way to end your phone call.

After some errrrs, and yeah-uhs, Califf asked if he could call me back, and he told me he’d like for the campaign spokesperson to talk with me, too. I told him I was on deadline, but I’d await their calls.

Another cracker, please, for the Play-Doh god.

A day later, I’m still waiting.

There might be a reason none of these folks are eager to talk: It’s unclear whether what they’re doing is legal.

When Republicans took control of the Alabama Legislature in 2010, they enacted sweeping campaign finance reforms and banned the political money-laundering scheme called PAC-to-PAC contributions. Through PACs, donors once could shuffle their money until the trail of campaign cash was untraceable.

The 2010 reforms ended this practice, but candidates since then have looked for new ways to launder money by crossing state lines.

In 2014, Attorney General Luther Strange accepted a $50,000 donation that had passed from the Republican Attorney Generals Association PAC (also in D.C and four flights of stairs above RGA) to another PAC the organization had set up strictly for Alabama elections.

After I wrote about it, Strange returned the money out of what his campaign called an abundance of caution.

In 2018, Attorney General Steve Marshall accepted $735,000 from the same organization, but this time he accepted it directly from the national RAGA PAC. However, the RAGA PAC had itself accepted money from other PACs, potentially violating the PAC-to-PAC law.

Marshall’s primary opponent, Troy King, thought so, too, and filed an ethics complaint. The Alabama Ethics Commission came one vote shy of referring Marshall for prosecution.

In 2020, Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Chris England asked the Ethics Commission whether the Alabama Democratic Party could do the same thing Marshall had done.

Their answer: No.

The commission issued a formal opinion saying that, going forward, such transfers from out-of-state PACs could be violations of the state law.

The loophole Get Families Back to Work might have found is that the state law addresses PACs or 527 groups, but it does not specifically address 501(c)(4)s.

Still, there are problems. Alabama law prohibits anyone, including PACs, from making or accepting contributions in the name of another. If Get Families Back to Work is simply acting as a pass-through for someone else, there could be trouble.

Further, federal tax law says that 501(c)(4)s must have a primary purpose of social welfare. That has been interpreted to mean that they must spend the majority of their money on things that benefit the public — and not on direct political action such as campaign contributions.

It’s difficult to tell whether Get Families Back to Work does anything but direct political action.

Get Families Back to Work has been active in other states. In Kansas, it sponsored attack ads against Gov. Laura Kelley and in Michigan it has donated to a school privatization campaign.

If it has a social welfare mission, it’s all but invisible. Heck, Get Families Back to Work doesn’t appear to have so much as a website.

But the biggest question of all is the one we started with: Where did this money come from?

Nobody gives that kind of political money — not in Alabama, nor anywhere else — without expecting something in return.

Someone is trying to buy Kay Ivey. Who finances a candidate’s campaign can tell you more about what that candidate stands for and what they will do once in office than anything pandering commercial on TV. You deserve to know who’s holding the governor’s purse strings.

But Ivey’s campaign won’t say.

Neither will RGA.

We’d sooner get answers from Boojie, who sits sphinxlike atop my living room shelf rapt in enigmatic silence and unimpressed by his latest sacrificial saltine.

He ain’t talking either.

Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, 2020 winner of the Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ award for opinion writing, and 2021 winner of the Molly Ivins prize for political commentary. You can follow his work on his Facebook page, The War on Dumb. And on Twitter. And on Instagram.

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