Dark money, not philanthropy: How Boise’s mayor fooled the press about her job

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff Articles, SMART Boise Leave a Comment

By Jon Cassidy | Special to the Idaho Freedom Foundation

Twice during her upset campaign for mayor last year, the truth about Lauren McLean’s long history as a dark money fundraiser for Democratic interests — work she describes as philanthropy consulting — nearly came to light.

The first time it came up was in a batch of leaked emails from McLean that contained some of the biggest names in dark money on the left. 

The second time her history was almost exposed was after the first campaign finance filings came in, which showed a tidal wave of dark money rolling in from Washington D.C. — money that was to be spent on ads for her. Even after Mayor Dave Bieter went on the record about it, the local press continued to ignore the story, apparently under the impression that a D.C. super PAC called LCV Victory Fund was something other than a channel for untraceable cash.

The PAC is associated with the League of Conservation Voters, as covered in an earlier article , but that money has nothing to do with rainbows and saving marmots.

Last July, the Idaho Press was the first to report on two fundraising emails McLean sent in 2015. One of the first rules of journalism is, “Nobody cares how you got the story,” but the Press decided to make the story how they got the story. A mysterious packet of documents came in the mail, directing the Idaho Press to Wikileaks. (This reporter stumbled onto Wikileaks after a Google search. See? Nobody cares.)

The article led with McLean denying involvement in dark money, skipped over what the emails revealed, and then reported two more lies McLean told to explain the emails away (not that the Press recognized either the lies or the significance of the emails).

McLean’s fundraising emails, plus a bit of investigating, reveal a lot.

One, McLean is a Democratic fundraiser who reports no fundraising. Her company, Idaho Progressive Investors Network, raises money for Democratic causes in Idaho, following a model established by Democracy Alliance, the left’s most influential dark money group. The idea is to establish a large network of wealthy donors, and direct their money through back channels to group’s serving the party’s interests.

Two, McLean coordinates with Idaho Voices for Children on candidate recruitment, and with Better Idaho, the leftist commentary site that stopped publishing two days after McLean declared her candidacy. Both of those groups are funded by the Democracy Alliance dark money network.

Three, McLean is close to John C. Stocks, whom the Idaho Press correctly identified as the then-executive director of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. The paper did not mention that Stocks is also chairman of Democracy Alliance, which would be relevant to a dark money story. The story did reveal one thing not in the emails: Stocks himself sends money to McLean’s network. 

Four, members of Democracy Alliance host dinners for McLean’s donor gatherings.

Five, the emails, dated from March and April 2015, are in Wikileaks because Stocks forwarded them to John Podesta — the Clinton loyalist, fundraising giant, and phishing dupe — inviting him to an “Idaho Investors Network donor collaborative meeting” McLean was organizing in Sun Valley in August, because, “We have over 40 partners many of whom are keenly interested in the BWC (sic).” BWC stands for the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges just north of Ketchum, which at the time was on President Obama’s shortlist to be n national monument. Locally, the issue had become a controversy between outdoor recreation enthusiasts and environmentalists of a misanthropic bent. Idaho’s congressional delegation ended up finalizing a compromise that July to make both official wilderness areas, which allow for more use by humans than a monument designation. 

The relevance to Podesta was twofold: He was Obama’s point man on national monuments, and he was heading Hillary Clinton’s PAC, Hillary for America. Stocks was offering him dozens of wealthy donors who had an interest in influencing a policy set by the president. Specifically, Podesta wanted “to suggest that we build an event in Sun Valley that is during” McLean’s event – piggybacking, in other words. Whether or not Podesta was interested, the issue was resolved before the meeting was held, eliminating any influence to be peddled.

Six, McLean lied about the purpose of Stocks’ email to Podesta. “John (Stocks) was like, ‘If we can get Podesta to come, maybe we can take him on a hike to see the Boulder-White Clouds and maybe that would help get (President) Obama to start thinking about making it a national monument,’” she told the the Idaho Press. 

There’s a reason they call guys like Podesta insiders, and it’s not because they have time to go tramping around the outdoors draped in Patagonia gear. To the point, Podesta was already supportive, having emailed Stocks the October prior on the date Obama proclaimed the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument into existence, to say, “On to Boulder White Clouds. I’m thinking next July 4.” 

Seven, McLean also lied when she told the Idaho Press reporter that her company, the Idaho Progressive Investors Network, was entirely separate from her and that she was merely contracted to complete the work, after the board made a decision to replace her “on the organization’s paperwork.” In the first place, this is impossible because her company is a limited liability company. LLCs do not have boards, they have members, either one or many. Until two months after this article ran, McLean’s name is the only name that has ever appeared as a member of the company in the secretary of state’s records.

The whole section of the story on McLean’s relationship to her company is wrong, so it’s hard to say how much of that is to blame on her dishonesty and how much on poor reporting. The kernel of truth is that an LLC is a legal entity somewhat separate from a person (yes for liability, but not income tax). However, McLean was plainly trying to distance herself from a company that is, to all appearances, her. As a city councilwoman,she commonly used [email protected] as her regular email address when communicating with colleagues.

On the company’s Certificate of Organization, filed in 2010, she is the only member listed, and the registered agent is Alex Sundali, who worked at the time for Blair Hull, a partner with Democracy Alliance. Those names remain the same on every report until 2017, when Sundali’s name is crossed out by hand and replaced with Milt Gillespie, a colleague of hers on the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission. As late as 2018, McLean is described as the “owner” of the company.

In Sept. 2019, Gillespie was replaced as the registered agent by Caitlin R. Lister (Gillespie’s name also shows up on Better Idaho’s paperwork, not coincidentally). In 2020, Lister is listed as both agent and member, but it’s unclear what that means. The company has not filed an amendment or restatement of organization recording Gillespie’s departure, according to the Idaho secretary of state’s records, which is how LLCs add or subtract members. However, the list of members ought to be included in the company’s operating agreement, which is not public record. So Lister may have been a member all along, but McLean is plainly still an owner of her own company.

In November of 2019, after then-Mayor Dave Bieter raised the dark money issue, Boise State Public Radio did a segment, but most of the media ignored the story. Those few listeners who caught the broadcast weren’t helped any by local experts. 

McLean went on the show to accuse Bieter of a “willful misunderstanding.” McLean said that that actually, she works to “support organizations that seek to stem the tide of out-of-state dark money.” 

The station turned to Jaclyn Kettler, an assistant political science professor at Boise State, to settle the question.

“I would not consider the [League of Conservation Voters] itself a dark money group,” Kettler said. “They’re not a conduit, right? That money’s not flowing through the group to then shield the donors.”

If you read part one of this series, you’ll know how tempting it is to dunk on Kettler, but that’s what the thought of marmots and rainbows do to otherwise intelligent people.

None of this is meant to suggest anything illegal, but when McLean denies any involvement with dark money, she is lying. When McLean says she is just “attempting to connect people to the causes they care about and to create spaces for them to engage and impact the future of this state,” she is simply describing the operation of dark money in a positive way.

The power of positive association with conservation is so strong that even observers much more sophisticated than the reporters who botched the dark money story last year, observers such as Marc C. Johnson, former chief of staff to the late Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, miss the point.

In a column, Johnson likened McLean’s campaign to the 1980 Idaho Senate race, when the National Conservative Political Action Committee swept in from Washington D.C. and knocked out long-serving Sen. Frank Church. Yet somehow, Johnson concluded that the League’s campaign was “hardly as pernicious as NCPAC.”

In truth, donations to those old PACs were capped and disclosed. And, in fairness, there is a positive and wholly constitutional side to the type of advocacy that gets labelled with the pejorative term dark money. Laws meant to ban so-called dark money often end up trampling that territory, simply because dark money can be difficult to define in a legal, technical, narrow sense. But that area – the one that’s so hard to define – does exist. You could define it generally as unreported spending to get a candidate elected.

The money flowing through LCV Victory Fund – coming from places like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, and ending up buying ads to influence a mayor’s race – is exactly what opponents of dark money mean by the term.

In part three of this series, we’ll cover how groups like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Democracy Alliance, and McLean’s own network move money around to mix constitutionally protected speech with electioneering, which is supposedly regulated.