A photo of the Ohio Statehouse from Wikimedia Commons.
Should nonprofit organizations that spend money on Ohio elections be forced to publicly disclose who funds them?
Some lawmakers say yes and are trying once again to change the state’s campaign finance law in an effort to make political spending more transparent.
State Reps. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, and Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, have reintroduced a bill nicknamed the “Ohio Anti-Corruption Act.” Two-dozen Democrats in the Ohio House of Representatives have co-sponsored the bill.
State law requires political candidates to publicly report donations to their campaigns. Organizations such as political action committees (PACs) are also required to report who funds them and what causes the PAC spends money on.
The House Bill 6 scandal, which led to the July 2020 arrests of House Speaker Larry Householder and several other Republican operatives, helped draw attention to a noteworthy exception in Ohio’s campaign finance laws.
Nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations, known as “social welfare groups,” are not required to report their donors.
This was a key component to the House Bill 6 scheme, prosecutors have alleged, with corporate money being funneled through a 501(c)(4) group secretly controlled by Householder. This money then supported the 2019 passage of a $1.3 billion nuclear bailout bill and was also used to defeat a ballot initiative to overturn the bill.
In the 10 months since the scandal broke, lawmakers of both parties have pushed for campaign finance reform in order to prevent “dark money groups” from adversely influencing Ohio’s political process.
Central to these varying proposals is a component to require the nonprofits to disclose their donors just like other political entities.
Russo and Sweeney first proposed the Anti-Corruption Act days after Householder’s arrest. It did not receive a hearing before the term concluded at the end of 2020.
They are now trying again. House Bill 306 also has a provision dealing with foreign spending on elections. Foreign corporations are already prohibited from making campaign donations, but HB 306 would go further in prohibiting spending from American-based corporations that have some foreign ownership.
Householder, a Glenford Republican, awaits trial on corruption charges. As the Ohio Capital Journal has reported, two Householder associates have already pleaded guilty — as did Generation Now, the dark money group at the center of the HB 6 scheme.
Householder has maintained his innocence. He remains in office representing the House’s 72nd District, though he holds no committee assignments this term and has yet to introduce any piece of legislation thus far in 2021. He has rejected widespread calls to resign from fellow Republican lawmakers and officials from his rural district representing Perry, Licking and Coshocton counties.
The House Majority Caucus has declined to take a vote to expel the former speaker from the chamber.
House Republicans introduced their own bill earlier this term dealing with dark money spending. House Bill 13, sponsored by Reps. Diane Grendell of Chesterland and Mark Fraizer of Newark, would only require nonprofits publicly disclose donations given to them for the purpose of influencing elections. Donations given for apolitical, social welfare purposes could be kept private.
HB 13 has received two hearings so far and has received initial support from the good government group Common Cause Ohio as well as a political action committee known as Wolf-PAC that fights for improvements to campaign finance law.
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