May 24, 2018

Whitehouse, Blumenthal, Durbin Introduce Stop Secret Foreign Interference in Elections Act

Legislation would inject greater transparency and accountability into elections, blocking channels of influence for Russia and other adversaries

Washington, DC – Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced new legislation today to detect and deter foreign nationals and governments’ use of dark money organizations to interfere in American elections.  The Stop Secret Foreign Interference in Elections Act would shine a light on foreign money flowing into American political organizations and hold campaigns accountable for keeping foreign funds out of their coffers.  The bill’s introduction comes amid growing concern from law enforcement, election experts, and technology companies about glaring vulnerabilities in campaign finance and incorporation laws that allow foreign actors to shield their activities from scrutiny. 

“Expert after expert – many of them Trump cabinet members and intelligence officials – come before Congress and warn that our elections are every bit as vulnerable to Russian interference as they were in 2016.  Troubling reports expose that the same dark money avenues that let billionaires like the Koch brothers manipulate our elections are out there waiting to be used by Vladimir Putin and his billionaire oligarchs – if they haven’t been already,” said Whitehouse. “To protect our elections and defend our democracy, we need to seal off these dark money passageways.  This bill will help do that.”

“The 2018 midterm elections are a few short months away, and Russian oligarchs and other foreign adversaries are waiting in the wings to bankroll meddling in our elections while the American electorate remains in the dark.  We must take immediate action to shine a light on efforts to undermine our democracy and ensure swift accountability for foreign meddling,” said Blumenthal.

“Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United have given corporations and the wealthy few a blank check to influence politics and politicians in our country.  And to make matters worse, Vladimir Putin and his wealthy oligarchs have jumped on this bandwagon and are using their wealth and connections to disrupt democratic institutions and support those who are sympathetic to Russian interests.  Since the Trump Administration won’t take the measures necessary to keep our elections and democracy safe from foreign adversaries, then Congress must do what it can.  And this bill is a good step,” said Durbin.

The Senators’ legislation would:

  • Require 501(c) organizations (with the exception of 501(c)(3) nonprofits) that accept foreign donations to disclose their foreign donors if they engage in political spending. 
  • Require senior executive and financial officers to certify on Federal Election Commission forms that (i) they have done their due diligence to ensure that no foreign money has been spent on the disbursements and (ii) they have not spent any foreign money on campaign related disbursements. 
  • Require organizations spending money in elections to verify who their donors are and report suspicious donations. 

Experts from the private sector, think tanks, and government have emphasized the need for greater transparency in our incorporation and campaign finance laws to safeguard our elections.

“Enhancing transparency and the effectiveness of the Western democratic tools, instruments, and institutions is critical to resilience against Russian influence,” said Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Heather Conley in her 2016 report The Kremlin Playbook.  Conley testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism in March 2017 on Russia’s interference tactics.  “We’re not influencing and impacting our own transparency laws, our beneficial ownership, abuse of funding for political party financing and non- governmental organizations,” Conley told the Subcommittee.  “It’s in fact in our power to stop these Russian tactics.”

“There are loopholes in the campaign finance disclosure regime, and they exacerbate the risk that foreign money can seep into our political system through corporations,” said Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub before a hearing of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in July 2017.  “Corporations, whether they are for profit or nonprofit, 501c4’s, LLC’s, 501c6’s, we know that they are engaging in political advocacy and they are using their corporate structure to shield who the real money people are behind those organizations.  They engage in direct advocacy, they donate in Super PACS, and sometimes they move money from one organization to another to another to another—it is actually very similar to a Russian nesting doll, and it is impossible at the end of the day to find out who is really providing the money.”

Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions have unleashed a flood of special interest money into our elections, helping to poison our politics and rig the system in favor of the wealthy and powerful.  But this has also opened up these same avenues for foreign adversaries set on gaining advantage over the United States.  In particular, shell corporations and tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations make it possible for anonymous donors—whether they be the Koch brothers, unknown foreign billionaires, foreign corporations, or even enemy governments—to buy influence and threaten crushing spending against political foes.  In addition the legislation introduced today, Whitehouse, Blumenthal, and Durbin have introduced a bipartisan bill to impose tough criminal penalties on those who use or help set up shell companies to hide foreign nationals’ political activities in the U.S. 

Text of the bill is available here.


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Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921