European commission finds US politics opaque

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Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

PARIS — A top European anti-corruption body wants the U.S. to increase transparency of political funding through outside groups that donate millions to support candidates, warning that they could be used to skirt long-established disclosure rules.

The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption — known as Greco and which counts the U.S. as a member — warns “soft money” political financing vehicles appear to be increasing in America.

The highly technical, 39-page report was approved by the Council of Europe’s plenary session last month, but was not previously made public. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report on Thursday. Greco officials then posted it online.

The practical effect on the United States of the European report — seven months in the making and involving interviews with many U.S. parties — was likely to be limited: Council officials admit the American political system is often more transparent than on the European side of the Atlantic.

But it could also embolden campaign-watchdog groups in the United States who have asked federal regulators to clamp down on unfettered streams of money in elections — particularly cash used for so-called “social welfare groups” founded for political campaigns. They are classified as tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, known as 501(c) organizations under the tax code.

Donors may give to the non-profits — which don’t have to disclose their donors and can be feeders of funds into super PACs, independent groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money. The report did not mention super PACs by name, but it did focus on the 501(c) organizations.

The report made three recommendations to U.S. authorities, and Greco said it “invites” the U.S. to respond to those recommendations by the end of June 2013.

One recommended that U.S. authorities continue their push toward electronic filing of public disclosure of financial reports in Senate elections. Another urged a study of the effects of tie votes — or “deadlocks” — at the six-member Federal Election Commission.

The other recommendation called on U.S. officials “to seek ways to increase the transparency of funding provided to organizations” like social welfare groups when the aim of that funding is to affect an election result.