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Ohio campaign-finance reform bill gets first look since emergence of dark money scandal

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 3/25/2021 Andrew J. Tobias, cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio House is taking up a bill that would impose tougher disclosure requirements on corporate political donors, a move to increase campaign-finance transparency in the aftermath of the House Bill 6 scandal.

House Bill 13 would require political nonprofits and other corporate groups to disclose their donors and spending with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, similar to political action committees or political candidates. Among the groups it would affect are 501C4s, political nonprofits often used as vehicles for “dark money” spending, or money that’s legally structured to keep its donors anonymous.

The bill also would remove a prohibition in state law that bars corporate political contributions, a statute that was rendered outdated by the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision and which largely has been ignored or circumvented by dark money groups.

HB13 got its first Statehouse hearing on Thursday, with its sponsors, Rep. Mark Fraizer, of Newark and state Rep. Diane Grendell, of Chesterland, testifying before the House Government Oversight Committee. The two Republicans introduced an identical bill last September, but it never received a hearing.

“Ohioans are entitled to the full picture so that they are able to make the best informed decisions with all campaign finance information present,” Grendell said in her Thursday committee testimony.

Good-government advocates have pushed for tougher transparency requirements on dark-money groups in the aftermath of the federal bribery probe into the passage of HB6, a nuclear bailout bill which prosecutors have said was backed by $61 million in political spending that FirstEnergy and its allies funneled through a dark-money group aligned with former House Speaker Larry Householder.

The dark-money group, Generation Now, has pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering charge as has Jeff Longstreth, the former Householder aide who ran it, as part of the investigation. The group also spent money on ads supporting pro-Householder state legislative candidates, including Fraizer.

Currently, 501C4s don’t have to disclose their donors, and only have to disclose their spending once a year to the IRS, often a year after it occurred.

The new bill would require 501C4s spending political money in Ohio to disclose their donors and spending to the state on the same campaign-finance schedule as other political groups, typically several times a year.

The new bill also would specify that corporate political spending in support of Ohio ballot issues, not just political candidates, must be disclosed to the state.

The bill is similar to a proposal that was introduced last year by state Reps. Gayle Manning, a Lorain County Republican, and Jessica Miranda, a Columbus Democrat. But that proposal, backed by Republican Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, would have required organizations to disclose some spending in near-real time. That bill also never received a hearing and hasn’t yet been re-introduced.

Fraizer said Generation Now is just an example of the kind of dark-money spending that’s proliferated in Ohio.

“It raised a lot of awareness of where we are now and where the gray areas are in the law,” he said.

He also said he thinks his bill has the support of his House colleagues.

“I would say transparency and campaign-finance reform is going to be a priority, and this will be a step in the right direction,” he said.

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