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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Casting light on shadowy campaign dollars

SOMETIMES a candidate’s stance can be both self-serving and right, which was the case with Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley this week. The attorney general called for timely disclosure of super PAC donors trying to influence Massachusetts campaigns.

Spending by undisclosed donors was a significant problem in Boston’s mayoral race last year. One big offender: the American Federation of Teachers, which secretly funneled $480,000 into TV spots to boost eventual winner Marty Walsh. Under the lax rules of an off-year election, it wasn’t revealed until year’s end, well after the election was over, that the AFT had funded those ads.

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The rules are a little tighter for this election, but super PACs, which can raise unlimited funds from corporations, unions, and individuals, will still be able to cloak any contributions they get within 18 days of the primary or general election until after voters go to the polls.

Coakley wants a law requiring those groups to disclose their contributors’ names every two weeks for most of the year and more frequently as voting day draws near. In the absence of such a law, she is calling on super PACs to voluntarily disclose their donors.

“As we always promote in consumer law, there should be financial disclosure so people can know who is behind a particular question and who is behind a particular candidate,” Coakley says.

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Good government types are also trying to fix the problem of undisclosed “dark money.” State Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, has filed legislation that among other things would require corporations and labor unions paying for political ads to disclose, even if the ads are done by another group. Political ads would have to list the top five contributors so that sponsors can’t hide behind a blandly named front organization.

Meanwhile, Mike Sullivan, director of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, has helped craft legislation that would require super PACs to report their contributors within seven business days, as they currently must with their spending. In the last 10 days of the primary and general election cycle, reporting would have to be done within 24 hours.

“All of these proposals get at the same idea: providing the public with accurate information about who is funding political advertisements and trying to influence our elections,” notes Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, who has collaborated on several.

Now, in issuing her call, Coakley has an obvious political interest: Two of her gubernatorial rivals may well have super PAC support. Steve Grossman’s neighbors, Barry and Eleanor White, have established a super PAC — Massachusetts Forward Together — specifically designed to boost his candidacy. Beth Lindstrom, a Republican politico, chairs Commonwealth Future, whose goal is thought to be to boost Baker.

Still, the issue of disclosure is a vital good-government concern.

First, the good news. Charles D. Baker Jr. and Steve Grossman both stepped up, saying they favor timely pre-election disclosure.

But now the bad: Not so the super PAC players. When I asked her about regular voluntary disclosure of donors, Eleanor White hemmed, then offered a “no comment.” Lindstrom didn’t return multiple calls. The AFT also ducked me.

Kudos to another politically active union, however. That’s SEIU Local 1199; Jeff Hall, spokesman for the union, which endorsed Warren Tolman for attorney general on Tuesday, says his local’s spending will be disclosed in a timely way.

Which raises this question: What about the AFL-CIO? President Steve Tolman is Warren’s brother; though Warren himself says he strongly favors increased “sunlight and exposure” and hopes for a campaign without third-party ads, there’s some worry in the political world that the AFL-CIO could funnel in some undisclosed dollars to help elect Warren.

Asked if he would pledge that his union would not use dark money to help his brother, Steve Tolman took umbrage, or at least pretended to, using the question to end our conversation without giving me an answer.

“You think I am going to do something inappropriate?” he said. “You are out of line. Goodbye.”

Actually, that wouldn’t be inappropriate, given current law. It would be non-transparent, however. Which is the very matter good government types are trying to address.

So what’s the bottom line here?

Simple. The Legislature needs to act. The stakes are too high and the shadows too dark.

Fortunately, there’s a good chance that will happen; noting that the Senate has already made one run at the issue, President Therese Murray says she wants to take it up again. On Tuesday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo told me he also favors action.

“If a large influx of money is coming into the election, I think it is important that people know before they go to the polls where that money is coming from,” he declared.

To which one can only say: Amen.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.

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