Alexi Giannoulias “can’t be trusted,” the 2010 election ad said. His family’s bank loaned money to mobsters, he accepted an illegal tax break and he even squandered money that families were saving for college. If the charges were true, the U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois must have been a real creep. But they were bogus. Giannoulias, the Democratic candidate, lost anyway. His accuser was not his opponent. It was an anonymously funded, pro-Republican nonprofit called Crossroads GPS, a “social welfare” organization that, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens Uniteddecision, can accept unlimited donations from corporations, wealthy individuals and unions, and run attack ads. In short, it functions just like the better-known super PACs but with a major distinction — it is not required to disclose its donors, despite the high court’s consistent support for disclosure rules.
In 2010, legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would require nonprofits that buy political ads to disclose their donors. The bill — fought by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s most powerful business lobby — failed. A stripped-down version introduced this year has been blocked by Republicans in both the House and Senate. The Chamber claims disclosure would “silence free speech.” Critics say its opposition is more about shielding the business association’s corporate donors from a potential public backlash.