STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's get the story behind some big money flowing into big-city politics. We've heard a lot about big spending, independent campaign groups often supporting some presidential candidate or some big national idea. Patrick Madden of our member station WAMU has exposed money spent on the local level. And a major political action committee here in Washington, D.C. that Patrick investigated has now closed under pressure. Welcome to the program.
PATRICK MADDEN, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what is the distinction, the difference, between this local spending and what we've seen on the national level?
MADDEN: I mean, the big difference when you start looking at these local super PACs or these local outside groups is that the donors really are people that are in the business of doing business with the city - government contractors, you know, people that are heavily invested in the city and have a financial stake in it.
INSKEEP: OK, so they're doing business with the city and contributing with politicians who control the city. What was this particular political action committee, Fresh PAC, that you looked into, doing?
MADDEN: Right. So this group was started by supporters of the mayor of D.C., Muriel Bowser. And this group found, in the very fine print of our campaign finance laws, that you could raise unlimited funds in an off-year election - essentially, become like a super PAC. So they started raising a lot of money in a very short period of time, around $350,000. And they hoped to raise about a million dollars. And the goal was to spend it during next year's City Council races to help elect candidates that would support Mayor Bowser's agenda.
INSKEEP: Whoa, whoa, whoa, you're saying that there are limits to the contributions that can be made in an election year. But they discovered if you just make it a little early in the previous calendar year, the contributions were unlimited.
MADDEN: Exactly. I mean, D.C. has very strict campaign finance limits - around $500 to a Council race, $2,000 to a mayor's race. But they could really raise unlimited donations by exploiting this loophole in the law.
INSKEEP: They seemed a little embarrassed, I gather, since they shut down.
MADDEN: Yes, I mean, once this story came out and we started investigating who the donors were - I mean, some of these donors were actually traveling with the mayor this week on a trade mission to China - it became a PR nightmare for the mayor. And essentially, as the public outcry got stronger and louder, they decided to shut down this PAC and return the money to the donors.
INSKEEP: How widespread are these independent campaign groups, then, at the local level across the country?
MADDEN: Well, I think this is the big fear when you speak with campaign finance watchdogs, that we're going to start seeing these outside groups start popping up in local races where, to be honest, they can have a much bigger impact just because there's less money involved. So we're seeing it - we see a similar group in New York supporting Mayor de Blasio. We've seen local super PACs in Nashville and in other cities around the country.
INSKEEP: Well, does this spreading practice amount to corruption?
MADDEN: I mean, it's an interesting question. And I think when you talk to campaign finance experts, it looks like the appearance of pay-to-play. And that in itself is a big problem and is why many cities and states actually have laws on the books preventing pay-to-play.
INSKEEP: And can this be prevented, given Supreme Court rulings that have really opened up campaign finance?
MADDEN: The legal experts, the campaign finance folks that I've spoken with, say there's really not much you can do other than raise a big outcry over these groups and almost shame politicians from associating themselves with these groups, which is what we saw happen here in D.C.
INSKEEP: Which is exactly what WAMU has done. Patrick, thanks very much.
MADDEN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's reporter Patrick Madden.
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