Group wants transparency in Missouri government. And it’s taking dark money donations

A good-government group pushing for a major overhaul of state ethics rules has received more than $325,000 in contributions from two dark money organizations.

A Post-Dispatch review of campaign finance records shows Clean Missouri, which is backing the Amendment 1 referendum on the November ballot, took in $312,000 from the Action Now Initiative and $13,287 from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

The two groups, classified under federal tax law as social welfare organizations, do not disclose their donors, raising questions about who is helping to finance the ballot initiative.

The proposed amendment would ban most lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, lower limits on campaign contributions and make lawmakers subject to open records laws.

Its most controversial provision would change Missouri’s system for drawing state legislative districts with a model designed to have the number of seats won by each party more closely reflect its statewide vote.

“The legislative reform package will increase ethics, integrity, transparency and accountability in state government,” the group asserts on its website.

The Houston-based Action Now Initiative was launched by billionaires John and Laura Arnold. The group works in conjunction with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to advocate for policy changes to state pensions, education and anti-obesity measures.

It also has been active in ballot initiatives in Maine and California.

The Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center assists groups such as Clean Missouri. While it also does not have to reveal its donors, records show previous contributors to the organization include labor unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Clean Missouri spokesman Benjamin Singer said the two organizations are different than political dark money groups that take in anonymous contributions in order to target individual candidates.

“They are pretty clear with what they are advocating for,” Singer said. “It’s pretty different from these groups that are funneling money into these races and abusing the system.”

He said the transparency Clean Missouri is advocating for is focused on the Legislature, not on campaign finance laws.

“The transparency is for open records and meetings,” Singer said.

Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, has been a frequent critic of Clean Missouri, but was not aware of the contributions.

“I’m not surprised,” said Conway, who is opposed to the redistricting provision and to making lawmaker emails open records.

“I think its an ill-conceived, poorly planned idea,” Conway said.

Thus far, records show Clean Missouri has raised $2.1 million to run its campaign.

“The Clean Missouri campaign reports all of its donations to the Missouri Ethics Commission openly and transparently. We’re proud of the broad support we’ve earned from across the political spectrum to clean up Missouri politics,” Singer said.

Along with small contributions from more than 27,000 people across the country, the group received a $250,000 donation from national progressive activist George Soros through The Open Society Policy Center — the Washington-based lobbying arm of Soros’ philanthropic network.

Soros, a Hungarian-born philanthropist, political activist and one of the world’s most successful investors, is a prolific contributor to progressive causes including campaign reform, drug policy reform and Democratic Party politics.

Clean Missouri turned in 347,000 signatures to nab a spot on the November ballot. But, it faces two upcoming legal tests.

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of Paul Ritter, a Miller County resident, Kansas City attorney Eddie Greim said the proposed referendum violates a provision in the Missouri Constitution that prevents multiple subjects from being combined into one ballot proposal.

“One purpose of the prohibition on multiple subjects in a single ballot proposal is to prevent ‘logrolling,’ a practice familiar to legislative bodies whereby unrelated subjects that individually might not muster enough support to pass are combined to generate the necessary support,” the lawsuit says.

A hearing in the case is set for Aug. 31.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry also is challenging the referendum.