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January 09, 2018

One aspect of the 2016 dark money flood funded by the Financial Privatization Cabal is that even though Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy paid a record civil forfeiture of $426,000, that amount is chump change for Cabal members. Let’s add the $31,000 in civil forfeitures paid by Strong Economy for Growth last week for a total of $457,000. Still chump change.

Pray tell, if victory were upon the Cabal, wouldn’t it pay for someone to come up with the forfeiture sum? Based on disclosures forced by OCPF of illegal contributions laundered to Great Schools Massachusetts, any of these Cabal contributors could have dipped into the petty cash drawer for another half million or so. Here they are, and their dark money contributions:

Andrew Balson                                         $500,000

Joshua and Anita Bekenstein                    $2,500,000

Mark Nunnelly and Denise Dupre            $550,000

Joseph Flanagan                                        $500,000

Amos Hostetter                                          $2,000,000

Jonathon Jacobson                                     $2,000,000

Seth Klarman                                              $3,000,000

Chuck Longfield                                          $650,000

Paul Sagan                                                    $496,000

Brian Spector                                                $525,000

Alice Walton                                                 $750,000

Howland Capital Management                     $1,025,000

Jeffrey Yass                                                   $600,000

That’s fourteen people and one firm that floated over $15 million in dark money. The Cabal could meet in my kitchen, and I have a small kitchen. These are only the folks who kicked in at least the forfeiture amount in dark money. I omitted the chiselers who only scraped together $250,000 or so. Some of these donors – Jacobson, Klarman, the Bekensteins, Dupre and Nunnelly, (all givers to Strategic Grant Partners, which brought FES into Massachusetts) Longfield, Walton, Sagan – also gave publicly to the pro-charters side. Balson contributed to both dark money fronts, FESA and SEFG. I omitted legal donors, but I’m sure Jim Walton of Arkansas ($1,125,000) or Michael Bloomfield of New York ($490,000) could have picked up the forfeiture tab.

To put the sum total contributed by these fifteen plutocrats in context, $15 million is about the amount spent by teachers unions opposing Question 2. The difference is that the unions relied upon small contributions from thousands of union members.  So don’t bother to message me about the big, bad unions.

And don’t message me to tell me that all the ballot committees OCPF found to be operating illegally in 2016 lost. The most important one, on charter schools, wouldn’t have been anywhere near the ballot except for the machinations of the Financial Privatization Cabal.

During the campaign I wrote that the hidden contributors desired secrecy because if the members of the Cabal became known, it would hurt the campaign. When the face of the campaign is darling children in television spots, that’s one thing. But when it’s the Financial Privatization Cabal, that is quite another. That view is supported in political science research and still makes sense to me.

But there is also another reason I’ve garnered from Gordon Lafer’s The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, and from Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Plan for America. It is because the plutocrats’ policy plot – intended to decimate unions, dismantle public services, and slash taxes on the wealthy – is so unpopular that it has to be hidden. As Professor MacLean writes, "why wait for popular opinion to catch up when you could portray as ‘reform’ what was really slow-motion demolition through privatization?"

The unpopularity of the charter school “reform” was evident in the electoral shellacking suffered by Question 2. But even as FESA was getting the death penalty from OCPF, new “reform” organizations have been sprouting like weeds. As a lesson in how this works over time, consider the wildly unpopular tax legislation just passed in Washington – the Koch Brothers invested in that for years and the payoff finally arrived.

We’re eleven months from another state election. Remember the 2016 ballot campaigns: four ballot questions, three of them corrupted by donations OCPF found to be illegal. Massachusetts, our democracy is in grave peril.

A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: I’ve failed to come up with a catchy name for the dark money funders so for now I’ve settled on “Financial Privatization Cabal.” Financial since most of the dark money is coming from the financial services industry. Privatization, because I believe their intention is to privatize public services. Cabal because it denotes a secret plot.

The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Office of Campaign and Political Finance, dark money

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