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Analysis: Who is That Behind the Curtain?

The unfolding story about surreptitious taping of officeholders at the Texas Capitol is going to end predictably: You'll know who did the filming — but not who paid for it.

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Texas lawmakers are chattering about sketchily identified political operators who have been surreptitiously recording conversations with officeholders in an attempt to embarrass them or reveal corrupt, unscrupulous or illegal activity.

Kind of makes you wonder what they found, right?

Legislators, who have complained to state police, are clearly peeved at the emergence of what they see as a political gotcha game that could be tied to next year’s elections. The American Phoenix Foundation, which employs the people doing this, is a nonprofit that is not required to reveal the names of its donors or how much they gave — in part because the Legislature has been unable to force that kind of disclosure.

That is standard fare in American politics right now: Political contributions to candidates and political action committees must be disclosed. “Dark money” transactions to certain types of politically active nonprofit organizations do not.

By the time this particular tale has fully unfolded, we will know a lot about the people who carried the cameras and microphones, asked questions, and captured video and audio of state officeholders. We might learn some salacious things about some of those legislators and their ethics and their sex lives — and probably about their propensity to say dumb things to strangers bearing cameras and microphones.

But we won’t know who is really behind all of this, about who is paying for it and why. The stuff on the ground is interesting, but it’s the shiny object diverting attention from the actual political players and their motives.

In place of that information, everybody jumps to their own conspiracy theories about who is in the shadows, whether it’s the Wizard of Oz or Professor Moriarty, a politically motivated oil baron in West Texas, a rich doctor in Houston or a trial lawyer from the Gulf Coast.

We still won’t actually know, because neither Congress nor the Texas Legislature requires nonprofit political organizations to reveal the names of their donors or the amounts they gave.

Leave the particulars to the lawyers for a moment. You have a right to go to meetings and be associated with others without revealing yourself. There are questions about what constitutes politics and what constitutes a public interest that’s not political, and whether civic “education” about political people and issues belong in the same regulatory category as electoral efforts. The reasons for privacy and secrecy have serious historical and intellectually defensible roots, but so do the reasons for transparency and disclosure.

When it comes to political nonprofits, our laws would prevent Toto from pulling back the curtain and allowing Dorothy to see the ordinary man behind the Wizard of Oz. We can cower before the apparition and describe it in great detail, but nothing really makes sense if you can’t see who is operating the levers. 

Credit Rick Perry for that. Two years ago this month, then-Gov. Perry vetoed legislation that would have required politically active nonprofits to identify their donors for fear that it “would have a chilling effect on both of those rights in our democratic political process.”

The bill’s proponents thought political players ought to be identifiable so that voters and everyone else would be able to see who was trying to manipulate public opinion. It’s perfectly legal to do that, but it’s also helpful to know who is on the field of play. Perry and others think the players deserve the protection of anonymity.

“While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws, no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone's participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means,” he wrote in this veto message.

Like it or not, that means the little guys get thrown under the bus and the big guys never leave a fingerprint. It is the political foot soldiers — the people bearing those mics and cameras — who will get identified and blamed. The people writing the checks get to hide.

One great irony is that the politicians who complain about these tactics and who most desperately want to know who is coming after them are the same folks who have not succeeded in regulating this corner of the political world.

They won’t see any results until next year’s elections are underway — if at all.

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