UPDATE: Dark Money In Politics: A 27 News Special Report - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

UPDATE: Dark Money In Politics: A 27 News Special Report

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MADISON (WKOW) -- They come at you from every direction, paid for by groups with innocuous sounding names like "Building a Stronger Wisconsin" and "People for the American Way."  But they have a very specific motive in mind.

"We know who the advertising favors.  We know if its for the Democrats or for the Republicans.  What we don't know, for sure at least, is who's writing the checks," said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

"A lot of these organizations operate completely in the dark.  They don't even have an office, their only address is a post office box," said Jack Craver, a political reporter at the Capital Times.

This is the world of dark money in politics.  It is born out of the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

"What Citizens United said was there can be no limit placed on the election spending of corporations, unions and other special interest groups," explains McCabe.

As long as those groups don't tell you to vote for or against a specific candidate, they can spend as much money as they want without disclosing their donors. And spend they do.

"Before the Citizens United decision, there was about $124 million in overall spending in Wisconsin elections," said McCabe.  "Then you go after the Citizens United ruling, there was $390 million in spending in the election cycle right after the decision.

McCabe and his staff track election spending for a living. They know that in the recall elections of 2011 and 2012 liberal groups such as We Are Wisconsin and the Greater Wisconsin Committee were joined by conservative groups like the Republican Governors Association and Wisconsin Club for growth as the biggest spenders. But they still don't know much about who is funding those groups.

"We try to do a lot of sleuthing to see the origins of their support, but a lot of times what you run into is a lot like one of those Russian dolls," said McCabe, referring to so-called nesting dolls.  "You see an organization there, you pull off the top and there's another organization in there that has supplied a bunch of money.  And you pull the top off of that one and there's another organization supplying money to that group."
"The only thing we can see is groups transferring money to other groups.  We can't see the original source of the money," said Craver, who spent months trying to follow the money for a special report of his own. 

Even contacting the officers listed on the tax forms of those organizations yielded no results for Craver.

"Overwhelmingly the answer is - 'we follow the laws, and the laws do not require us to disclose who our donors are,'" said Craver.

Some of the conservative groups are now at the center of a Milwaukee County criminal investigation focusing on possible illegal coordination with the campaigns of Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) and some Republican state senators during the 2012 recalls.

But Wisconsin Club for Growth President Eric O'Keefe filed a federal lawsuit which successfully ended the investigation for now, after U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa ruled it was a violation of the group's first amendment rights.

27 News made several calls to O'Keefe to talk with him about who funds Wisconsin Club for Growth, but none were returned.

We decided to pay a visit to O'Keefe's southwest Wisconsin home to get some answers, but his wife, Leslie Graves, said he wasn't home.

She then sent the following email to us after we left - "Hi Greg (Neumann): I'm Eric O'Keefe's wife; you dropped by my residence near Spring Green earlier today.   You don't have permission to visit my home or office and i'm asking you not to do so."

Jack Craver says he got several similar responses.

"Unequivocally, these groups are utterly hostile about inquiries into who is giving them money," said Craver.

If Judge Randa's ruling isn't overturned and it becomes legal precedent, we may never know how much dark money groups may be coordinating with the candidates themselves.  But McCabe believes it happens all the time.

"Its like they seem to be specializing in one medium or another, but the messages are virtually identical.  Sometimes even the images in the advertising are identical," said McCabe.  "After seeing that over the course of many, many years, I just got to the point where I thought this can't be a coincidence."

MADISON (WKOW) -- Election ads will soon be coming at you from all directions, but in many cases you won't have any idea who is paying for them.

Coming up tonight on 27 News at Ten, Capitol Bureau Chief Greg Neumann will have a special report on Dark Money in Politics.

The 2009 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed issue groups, not affiliated with actual candidates, to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections without having to disclose their donors.

"There are groups that favor Democrats, there are groups that favor Republicans that are playing the dark money game and tens of millions of dollars have flowed into election campaigning, or in recent elections in Wisconsin," said Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election spending.

You see how difficult it is to track dark money and how much on an impact its having on Wisconsin elections.

Dark Money in Politics, tonight on 27 News at Ten.

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