According to a CalMatters analysis, the number of nonprofits affiliated with California legislators or caucuses grew from at least three in 2010 to at least 12 last year, with total revenue of about $2.9 million.
Much of the money has come from corporations and unions with business before the Legislature, including oil, tobacco and other lobbies whose political contributions are officially or unofficially shunned by the member’s party. The upshot, experts say, is a monetary backchannel that, while legal and even sometimes beneficial, has also become an increasingly common way for politicians to raise and spend money outside the limits even of California’s tough regulations.
“It provides another way for the lawmaker to wield influence as well as a way for those who seek to influence the legislator to curry favor,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. “This gives a donor some potential extra influence that they couldn’t buy through a campaign contribution.”
A 2018 report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law named presidents, governors, members of Congress and prominent mayors from both major parties who had used nonprofits to raise millions of dollars. Among them: Trump, Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and, in California, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The report found, in particular, that “spending by nonprofits that coordinate with elected officials after they take office goes almost entirely unchecked.”
Nonprofit entities offer politicians enormous flexibility in how much they tell the public about who’s giving them money. Federal law generally does not require that nonprofits disclose their donors to the public.
State law does require California politicians to publicly report payments of $5,000 or more made to a group at the politician’s request for a legislative, governmental or charitable purpose — a transaction called a “behested payment.” Most of the nonprofits affiliated with California lawmakers report the bulk of the donations they receive as behests to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. The amount of money lawmakers reported raising as “behested payments” for their nonprofits grew from $105,000 in 2011 to $2.9 million in 2019, for a total of nearly $13.3 million over the nine years.