Ryan Sager makes some explosive charges about the campaign-finance reform "movement" in the New York Post. Specifically, Sager alleges "campaign-finance reform has been an immense scam perpetrated on the American people by a cadre of left-wing foundations and disguised as a 'mass movement.'"
Sager's charge rests largely on a video tape of remarks by Sean Treglia, a former program officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, explaining the role of Pew and other foundations in the campaign-finance reform effort. According to Sager:
Charged with promoting campaign-finance reform when he joined Pew in the mid-1990s, Treglia came up with a three-pronged strategy: 1) pursue an expansive agenda through incremental reforms, 2) pay for a handful of "experts" all over the country with foundation money and 3) create fake business, minority and religious groups to pound the table for reform.
Portions of the tape transcript are on-line here.
In addition, Sager cites a report by Political Money Line on the "campaign finance lobby." According to this report, some $140 million was spent on reform efforts from 1994-2004. Of that total, $123 million (88 percent) came from eight foundations, including Pew. This money, Sager maintains, helped create various pro-reform groups and funded efforts to increase coverage of reform efforts. Specifically, Sager alleges the following:
* In September of 2000, less than two years before the passage of McCain-Feingold, the liberal magazine The American Prospect put out a special issue devoted to campaign-finance reform. . . . the "Checkbook Democracy" issue was paid for with a $132,000 check from the Carnegie Corporation — which . . . has spent $14 million promoting the regulation of political speech in the last decade.
* Since 1994, National Public Radio has accepted more than $1.2 million from liberal foundations promoting campaign-finance reform for items such as (to quote the official disclosure statements) "news coverage of financial influence in political decision-making." About $400,000 of that directly funded a program called, "Money, Power and Influence."
NPR claims that there has never been any contact between the funders and the reporters. NPR also claims that some of the $1.2 million went to non-campaign-finance-related coverage. But at least $860,000 can be tied directly to coverage of money in politics.
* Lastly, the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation accepted $935,000 between 1995 and 2001 from liberal foundations promoting campaign-finance reform for things like a "training initiative to help television, radio and print journalists provide better news coverage of the influence of private money on electoral, legislative and regulatory processes."
The president of RTNDF, Barbara Cochran, assured me that "We did not receive money to promote campaign-finance reform." Cochran also made clear that RTNDF does not provide news coverage, it only trains journalists. But she wouldn't provide The Post with any of the training materials it produced with the foundation money.
Sager's final charge is against the media, which was "either too ill-informed or too unconcerned to figure out the fraud." On the tape, Treglia recounts a "scare" that Pew's efforts would be reported in the press, but it never happened; "journalists didn't care."
Sager's charges, if true, have disturbing implications: A handful of foundations with a specific political agenda implemented a successful campaign to change federal law under the guise of adopting "populist" political reforms, and the press never caught on (or, worse, never bothered to report it).