Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 27, 2018

Dark Money; The Panama Papers

Filed under: Film,journalism,taxation — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Two documentaries under consideration here fall with within the general rubric of investigative journalism and as such should be of interest to those who trying to get a handle on how the superrich are screwing the vast majority of the human race. “Dark Money”, which can be seen on Amazon and iTunes, describes the resistance Montanans mounted to the Koch brothers and their hired hands bid to buy the state government through their ultraright, bogus, and opaque tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups. “The Panama Papers”, an Epix film, tells the story of how a network of investigative reporters broke the story of Mossack-Fonseca. A trove of documents was furnished by a whistle-blower known only as “John Doe”. (Epix is a premium cable station site like HBO that allows you to take out a fifteen-day trial subscription. I’d take advantage of this if you want to see “The Panama Papers” that premiered yesterday.)

The idea of a typically red state like Montana with its gun-toting ranchers and farmers resisting corporate campaign contributions made legal by Citizens United might strike you as an anomaly. However, a look at the state’s history would reveal a deep-seated hostility to the copper mining industry that had poisoned the waters of Montana to such a degree that even the ranchers and farmers would not put up with it.

Anaconda Copper was the worst of them. In its open pit excavations in Butte, the company allowed copper-infused soil and rocks to seep into the Berkeley Pit, a lake formed by underground water. The combination of mineral waste and water produced an acid pool so toxic that when a flock of 3,000 Snow Geese touched down during a migration, every bird died. In the early 1900s, Anaconda did not just rule over a company town. It was more accurate to call Montana a company state under its thumb.

As part of the progressivist and socialist movements sweeping the country back then, Montana’s legislators passed a bill in 1912 that made corporate funding of election campaigns illegal. However, when the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations were permitted to make campaign contributions without limits, Montana’s law was superseded to the dismay of Democrats and Republicans alike. The documentary points out that Republican state legislators were by no means happy about Koch’s network of shadowy 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups like Americans for Prosperity and Western Tradition Partnership meddling in the electoral process.

In Montana, the battleground shifted. Instead of being able to ban the Koch brothers outright, the state election commission shifted to monitoring whether disclosure laws were being broken. If one could not prevent Koch, Inc. from dumping a million dollars into Montana, at least you could make sure to monitor the candidates they supported were not benefiting from unreported “dark money”.

In the first election campaign in Montana following the Citizens United ruling, the Koch-funded Republicans came together as an electoral bloc totally committed to their agenda. This meant first and foremost allowing corporate polluters to enjoy the kind of free rein that led to the death of 3,000 Snow Geese. If you’ve ever been to Montana, as I have to visit the Blackfoot reservation, you’ll understand how the despoliation of some of the most beautiful nature in America can move people into struggle.

The villain in this story is one Art Wittich who was elected to the state legislature after defeating a long-time Republican legislator in the primary. He and a number of other Koch loyalists mounted a coup against the old guard that, while not likely to be endorsed by the DSA, was ready to resist both “dark money” and polluted water. It was up to the state election commission to investigate how Wittich’s campaign was funded. Led by commission head Jon Motl, the campaign secured the pro bono assistance of a retired attorney named Michael Cotter, who after laboriously poring through email communications between Wittich and Koch’s hired guns as well as other incriminating documents, argued in court that Wittich never paid for a lot of the services he was receiving, including expensive direct mail campaigns, etc. But the case was ultimately decided in Cotter’s favor when a young woman who worked in the Koch-funded Right to Work Committee in Colorado stepped forward as a witness against Wittich. In the film, she states that she is into Koch brothers ideology but not when it is promoted through illegal means. Needless to say, she has not reached the point of understanding how the two go hand in hand but still to be commended for stepping forward knowing that her career in Koch-funded organizations has come to an end.

In addition to Motl and Cotter, another hero in the film is an investigative reporter named John S. Adams whose persistent reporting about the “dark money” flows helped to raise awareness in the state. When Adams and a group of other independent-minded reporters began raising money to put out a new state-wide paper reflecting their editorial principles, he was fired by The Great Falls Tribune, a Gannett newspaper. Virtually homeless, he continued covering the “dark money” story and was eventually successful in launching an online newspaper called, appropriately enough, the Montana Free Press. Bookmark it to stay informed on the future of red state politics especially in articles like “Where the jobs are: Montana’s economic landscape, visualized“.

In late 2014, a German reporter named Bastian Obermeyer was emailed by a “John Doe” who informed him that he had a massive archive of documents from the computers at Mossack-Fonseca in Panama City. This was a law firm that helped rich people all across the planet avoid paying taxes. As middle men, Mossack-Fonseca lined up banks in places like Panama, the Cayman Islands, and other Caribbean islands willing to shelter their clients’ deposits from tax collectors. In some cases, the tax shelter was legitimate. For example, someone like soccer great Lionel Messi made no effort to hide what he was doing. Star athletes are notoriously protective of their wealth even though it generally does not come exploiting labor except their own.

In other cases, those avoiding taxes might not be making dealings with Mossack-Fonseca a secret but heads of state like David Cameron in England, Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson in Iceland, Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Assad in Syria wouldn’t advertiseit either. As it happens, Cameron and Johannsson resigned under pressure after the Mossck-Fonseca news broke as did Sharif who was additionally sentenced to 10 years in prison. It should come as no surprise that nothing happened to Putin and Assad. They have learned to make transparency, accountability and respect of the popular will a crime punishable by death.

The connection between the two films should be obvious. Both expose how the rich use every means at their disposal to hold on to their wealth, while government treasuries are starved. In England, Cameron’s greed, as well as those of other rich people, meant that hiding money in banks that were part of Mossack-Fonseca’s portfolio came at the expense of the national health system, the upkeep of council housing like Grenfell Towers where a fire cost the lives of 72 residents, and other services in the public realm. This is just another tactic in the ruling class’s arsenal that serves the same ends as Americans for Prosperity et al in the USA. They spend millions to support candidates favoring tax cuts and privatization of social security, the schools, and an end to the minimalist Obamacare.

While I am sure my readers understand these things in broad brushstrokes, seeing these two films will make you an even better defender of badly needed changes in the tax laws and in how elections are funded that will at least level the playing field between the vast majority of humanity and a predatory bourgeoisie. Men like the Koch brothers, Robert Mercer, Sheldon Adelson, the Trumps, et al will destroy the planet just as long as they can buy 100-feet yachts and 10,000 square foot mansions. If the only defense against them is a party led by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, something more radical is obviously needed. The two documentaries are useful contributions to raising awareness about how to build a stiffere resistance.

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