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Election 2010: Legalized money-laundering spreads lies with impunity

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Talk about Big Brother watching you. In this election, it seems, he's toying with you, twisting your mind behind the veil of earnest -- and dishonest -- anonymity.

Big Brother in this case is not the federal government. He is wealthy individual and corporate donors who are pouring millions into ad campaigns that warp and skew perspectives on such policies as the new federal health care plan. The really scary part? No one -- not even top investigative reporters -- can figure out who is spending the megabucks behind the ads being used to brainwash us.

If this sounds to you like some left-wing conspiracy theory, then read "The Secret Sponsors," a hair-raising article on the front of this Sunday's New York Times Week in Review.

Reporter Mike McIntire set out to find out who was behind an ad paid for by something innocuously calling itself the "Coalition to Protect Seniors." The ad makes the dramatic -- and unsupported -- claim that the new health insurance overhaul would cut $455 billion from Medicare, a lie. McIntire's quest to get to the bottom of it makes for an entertaining bit of reporting. But the bottom line is he can't trace the source of the money or discover who created the earnest-sounding organization behind it.

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His efforts, end at a shell company with vague yet unproven ties -- surprise, surprise -- to someone connected to the health insurance companies that opposed the legislation.

What the article also makes clear is that such ads -- paid for with money laundered, apparently legally, through "nonprofits" -- are spreading like wildfires through the election process. Writes McIntire:

A recent report by Public Citizen found that in the 2004 elections, 98 percent of outside groups disclosed the names of donors who paid for their political ads; this time around, only 32 percent have done so.... Meanwhile, the amount of money spent in these groups skyrocketed to more than $100 million as of last week, more than twice that of the mid-terms four years ago.

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No question. This latest method of political manipulation is open to, and undoubtedly can be used effectively, by supporters of both parties. But at least in this year of Tea Party fervor, it's been put to particularly zealous use by the Right.

Noting the Supreme Court ruling this year that lifted restrictions on corporate, union or private spending on elections, the well-respected political site, electoral-vote.com, reports that, "Republican-oriented groups are outspending Democratic-oriented groups 7 to 1 this year. In many cases, the groups doing the spending are new and their donors are unknown. The consequence is that a few shadowy billionaires with some spare change can have a huge effect on the political landscape."

Times columnist Frank Rich also took up the issue Sunday, writing that, "Such deep-pocketed mystery benefactors ... are the real indicators of what's going on under the broad Tea Party rubric. Big money rains down on the 'bottom up' Tea Party insurgency through phantom front organizations (Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security) that exploit legal loopholes to keep their sugar daddies' names secret."

It's bad enough for our elections to be bought by high-rollers who distort the facts in so-called "issue" ads intended to muddy (or just plain disregard) the facts and swing votes. But when it's possible for these high-rollers to perpetrate these lies without even having to disclose who they are and who they represent, we have truly arrived in the age of Big Brother.

"This is America?" my wife Kathy asked after reading the article.

Apparently so.

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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