Minnesota native keeps tabs on money in politics

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER  , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2013 - 4:34 PM

Minnesota native Sheila Krumholz’s organization aims to make it easy to track the influence of money on government.

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Sheila Krumholz

Krumholz makes sure that every publicly available financial detail of businesses’ influence on elections, legislation and policy is just a few computer clicks away.

Born and raised in Owatonna, Minn., and educated at the University of Minnesota, Krumholz has been executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), better known as OpenSecrets.org, since 2006. Many consider the website the country’s best at connecting the dots between money and politics.

Reporters regularly interview Krumholz. The media cite her organization in thousands of stories each year. And Web traffic shows that businesses themselves go to the site to see whom other companies are trying to influence.

“They are able to highlight spending trends in a way that a nonpartisan government agency cannot,” said former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter. They “take data and make it usable and intelligible. They translate it into the language of political discourse.”

Not everyone sees this as a good thing. The Heritage Foundation, a free-market think tank, maintains that groups like CRP might stifle the free speech of those who want to give to political causes, but fear personal and professional attacks if their preferences become public.

“When you talk about ‘dark money’ as they do on her website, you make things that are perfectly legal and ethical seem illegal and not ethical,” said John Von Kannon, a Heritage vice president. “That’s a reason not to give.”

Von Kannon says corporations should enjoy the same rights as individuals and that giving to political campaigns as well as independent spending groups should be unlimited. He agrees with disclosing campaign contributions. But revealing donors to political-issues groups can become “a form of intimidation.”

Krumholz, who studied international relations and minored in political science at the U, swears that corporations are not the “enemy any more than unions or ideological organizations.” But “in certain circumstances they can gain undue influence based upon the money they throw around Washington.”

As she sees it, her mission is to provide information to try to level the playing field.

“If they have the possibility of being harmed or hurt by federal regulation or action, most corporations of a certain size are active and firing on all pistons with campaign contributions, lobbying, using the revolving door [that provides lucrative private-sector jobs to ex-politicians] or developing cordial relationships over time so that they can call in their chits and gain access when it is needed,” Krumholz said.

“It is important for those of us who are not at the table to make sure we are not on the menu.”

Books lying around her cluttered office include “Outside Money,” “The Dollar Power of PACs on Congress” and “Washington Babylon.” A bumper sticker affixed to one of many black metal filing cabinets reads, “Who’s paying for this election?”

With a staff full of computer geeks, journalists and the occasional ex-government official, the Center for Responsive Politics is a nonprofit organization funded by grants — dutifully listed on the website — and some private purchases of customized data. CRP gathers information from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, then blends it in ways that expose otherwise opaque relationships between corporate or personal wealth and political power.

Krumholz sums up her job simply: She wants CRP to provide “a road map” to how policy gets made.

Adam Skaggs, director of the Money in Politics Project at the Brennan Center for Justice, says CRP performs an “invaluable” service. “The larger corporations in our country control extensive sums and therefore have a disproportionate ability to influence policy and politicians,” Skaggs said.

‘Inherently misleading’

The way Krumholz’s group measures corporate influence causes Jim Bopp some heartburn. Bopp is the Indiana lawyer who filed the now-famous Citizens United suit that led the U.S. Supreme Court to allow unlimited corporate and union contributions to so-called “independent” political spending groups that often run attack ads.

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