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Ruth Marcus: It's hard to follow the election money

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: November 9, 2012

Specialty Group Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., has a peculiar specialty: political anonymity. The company filed for incorporation in late September. Within a few weeks, it had donated nearly $5.3 million to FreedomWorks for America, a conservative super PAC allied with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

What is Specialty Group? Where does its money come from? From the public record, it's impossible to tell. The Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that the company's registered agent is a Knoxville man, William S. Rose Jr.

After news reports, Rose issued a statement describing Specialty as his investment firm, detailing his gripes with President Obama and assailing “prying media who seem hellbent on asking a private citizen about private facts.”

And here is the most disturbing thing about the Specialty contributions: By the degraded standards of the 2012 campaign, they are a model of transparency.

Because the donations were made to a super PAC, at least they were disclosed. Hundreds of millions of dollars more were spent by so-called “dark money” groups that do not even report the identities of their donors.

Yes, every election cycle features hand-wringing about how this is the most expensive and most out-of-control ever. But the magnitude and implications of the 2012 money are truly alarming.

This was the first presidential election since Watergate financed entirely with private money. Another bit of backsliding: Mitt Romney became the first presidential nominee since 2000 not to voluntarily reveal the identity of the “bundlers” to whom he is indebted for hauling in hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

Further, in the first presidential election since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, outside spending on all races more than tripled, from less than $300 million in 2008 to more than $1 billion in 2012.

The outside groups' messages were far more negative than the candidates' themselves. And Specialty Group isn't the only pop-up entity seemingly established solely to shield donors' identities. One outfit, W Spann LLC, wrote a $1 million check during the primary season to the Romney-backing Restore Our Future PAC; only after sustained media attention did the real donor surface — Edward W. Conard, former managing director of Romney's Bain Capital.

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