Running afoul of campaign finance laws may seem quaint in our political climate. But you’ll still be alarmed at the goings-on in Dark Money, Kimberly Reed’s deep dive into contribution corruption in Montana’s state government.
“Dark money” refers to funds given to non-profit organizations, which then use the funds to influence elections through methods such as anti-candidate mailers. There is no limit to how much these nonprofits can receive, and they are not required to name the donors. The IRS refers to them as “social welfare organizations,” but Montana begs to differ: Corporations donate the majority of contributions in order to indirectly advocate for candidates who support certain legislation. And often it’s not for the greater good.
The film makes it clear that the state election system didn’t always allow this. In fact, for nearly 100 years, Montana had the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 on the books, forbidding corporations from giving to political campaigns. But in 2010, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that such state laws violated the “free speech rights of corporations,” giving them the go-ahead to donate as they pleased. John Adams, an investigative journalist who shepherds much of the documentary, notes that the subsequent proliferation of social welfare organizations basically made bribery OK in the eyes of the law. He describes it this way: “It’s the government controlled by a corporation controlling the people, which is, like, su-per crazy big brother, but it’s happening.”
Adams is a recurring figure here, though it may take you a bit to realize this—Reed films him with various states of facial hair, from clean-shaven to bearded to bearded with a handlebar mustache. But continuity doesn’t seem as important to the director as throwing as many facts as she can at the viewer. It may be difficult for anyone unfamiliar with dark money in general, and Montana politics in particular, to initially grasp what’s being alleged. Reed fails to ease into the subject and takes quite a while to get into a storytelling groove that’s sufficient enough to let you follow the narrative. At one early point, there’s a blip about the state’s Berkeley Pit, a copper mine that’s now filled with “poison acid water.” “We are in that position because of out- of-control corporations buying our politics,” an offscreen commentator who sounds like Adams says. Why exactly? Specifics remain unknown; the point is it’s bad.
Dark Money likewise does itself a disservice by touching on controversial out-of-state figures such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Koch brothers—who founded the social welfare group Americans for Prosperity—further giving the film a scattered feel. For much of the time, though, it focuses on an organization alternately called American Tradition Partnership and Western Tradition Partnership. In the final chapter, Reed stops to breathe, taking a close look at the trial of onetime Montana state Senator Art Wittich, who was accused of accepting and not disclosing the services of ATP/WTP—and therefore essentially accepting illegal corporate donations—during his 2010 campaign.
But wait: Didn’t the Supreme Court say that corporate donations are cool? Aren’t Montana politics super crazy big brother like the rest of the country’s? Too often there’s crucial information that gets lost here. In this film, it’s not just money that’s kept in the dark.
Dark Money opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.