In the informative documentary Dark Money, a small-town Montana politician gets knee-capped in an election by a last-minute influx of out-of-state money spent by a group calling itself Mothers Against Child Predators.

That the group was flagrantly phony and the name hilariously redundant (there are mothers organized in favor of child predators?) is beside the point. The damage was done. The flood of fliers, mailings, and robocalls hit just three days before the polls opened, leaving the poor guy in the impossible position of explaining the he wasn't a child predator.

He lost. So did several Montana politicians, targeted by massive last-minute spending by hidden donors – a process that Dark Money investigates in illuminating detail.

Among the strange wrinkles: the out-of-state money (linked to the conservative Koch brothers) was designed to oust Republican candidates. Targeted in primaries because they were deemed to be insufficiently conservative – one says he fell out of favor because he used the phrase "public schools" instead of the loaded jargon preferred by hard-liners: "government schools."

Montana, as Dark Money discovers, turns out to be an ideal lens through which to examine the fallout stemming from the 2010 "Citizens United" Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on political campaign spending by organizations, citing such spending as protected political speech. (The decision piggy-backed on previous Supreme Court rulings that affirmed corporate personhood and spending on political advertising.)

Montana had particularly vigorous laws against corporate interference in elections, dating back a century to the time when copper barons controlled the state's elections and its legislature. The result was an environmental catastrophe, (a defunct copper smelting operation that currently is a toxic lake and the nation's largest superfund site) and a fierce backlash from voters who rebelled against  corporate control of state politics. (The statute they passed was called, quite sensibly, the Corrupt Practices Act.) Election funding was limited to a couple hundred bucks per person, per business. No exceptions.

"Citizens United" was a green light to do an end-run around that law, and Dark Money shows how out-of-state spending subsequently wreaked havoc on local Montana elections. Montanans fought back with new laws, but these failed to survive legal challenges in the Supreme Court, which affirmed its "Citizens United" decision.

A sticking point: the stubborn contention by the majority opinion in "Citizens United" that there is no "quid pro quo" between dark money "speech" and the candidates who benefit. This is why the "Citizens United" decision polls so poorly among Republicans and Democrats — most sentient beings know there is certainly a quid pro quo. This is proved in Dark Money, after some diligent Montana reporters stumble on a box of documents directly linking the influx of dark money to campaign activity designed to help certain candidates. What's more, it's was done in coordination with those candidates, which even the "Citizens United" majority finds beyond the pale.

For the time being.

Meanwhile, happy ending — you can write constitutional laws demanding to know the source of the "dark" money, thus making it easier to demonstrate coordination. And this is something liberal and conservative voters both want (even if the current administration has made moves to make dark money more opaque).

On this one issue, we are citizens united.


Dark Money

  • Directed by Kimberly Reed. Distributed by Big Mouth Productions.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
  • Parents guide: Not rated.
  • Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse