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Mayor Lauren McLean, the dark money queen of Boise

Mayor Lauren McLean, the dark money queen of Boise

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
August 12, 2020

By Jon Cassidy | Special to the Idaho Freedom Foundation

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean was so sure that dark money operatives would buy televisions ads for her election bid last year that she didn’t buy any herself.

Her campaign spent a few grand on Facebook and Google ads, but most of her $355,000 budget went to the practical expenses of running her 2019 campaign: staff, printing, mail, food, and related items. On paper, she had around $100,000 less than her opponent, fellow Democrat and —at 16 years in office — Boise’s longest-serving mayor, Dave Bieter.

But operating mostly off the books, a shadow campaign sent $310,000 in-state to blanket Boise in TV ads for McLean’s benefit. A few bucks, $33,000, may have gone for City Council candidates, but the lion’s share, $233,690.49, was spent on McLean, carrying her to a 65%-to-35% victory over Bieter while breaking state records for outside spending on a municipal election.

Eight months after the election, none of those numbers have been reported by the Idaho press, yet all of it was – cue a stormy night and some maniacal laughter – dark money. Dark money out of – let the thunder boom, Frau Blücher! – Washington, D.C.

The left side of American politics has been sloshing dark money through environmental channels for a decade, yet few people have noticed. The fact that the funds spent for McLean bore the name “League of Conservation Voters” may have given some the impression that they had to do with saving marmots and rainbows and whatnot, but the League was just an intermediary.

Two news outlets took a swing at the dark money story – the Idaho Press in July and Boise State Public Radio in November – but both whiffed, allowing McLean to lie without being challenged on the facts. The Idaho Statesman, for its part, didn’t even take a swing.

In a stunning show of hubris, McLean denied any involvement in dark money, calling herself a philanthropy consultant. Actually, she told the radio, she works to "support organizations that seek to stem the tide of out-of-state dark money." 

And she does, but McLean’s network is so deep into dark money that it uses dark money to fund anti-dark money groups such as Issue One.

The truth is that, for the last decade, McLean has been building a network of more than 40 secret donors, hand-in-hand with some of the biggest dark money fundraisers in Democratic Party politics. She works closely with John C. Stocks, the chairman of Democracy Alliance, a group founded by George Soros, Tom Steyer, and a few others that boasts a network of 100 or so megarich donors that has funneled $1.83 billion to groups on the left since 2005. Rather than pool money, DA, as the group is known, sets the priorities for outside spending by its partners, and in turn, much of the left.

McLean used much the same model for her own network.

McLean also enjoys the backing of Blair Hull, a wealthy retired securities trader who lives part of the year in Ketchum. Hull is a partner in DA, and he provides much of the funding for the left’s pop-up campaigns (or Astroturf campaigns, if you’re on the other side) in Idaho. Hull’s family foundation discloses, by name, many of the local campaigns it supports, while sending other funds to Washington, D.C., to some of DA’s pass-through groups, which serve to obscure the connection between donor and final recipient. Hull even hosted a dinner for McLean’s donors at his Sun Valley home in 2015.

In 2010, McLean set up a limited liability company called the Idaho Progressive Investor Network, which also does business without the word “Progressive” in the name. Like DA, the group doesn’t have anything to do with “investors” in the commonly understood sense of the word. Rather, with so many rank-and-file Democrats allergic to the idea of wealthy campaign financiers, many left-leaning fundraisers started using “investor” as a euphemism for “donor” or “contributor” a decade or so ago.

It’s not uncommon for the top dark money groups on the left to describe their work as philanthropy, just as McLean does. Many of them do make charitable contributions to groups that actually do nice things,  though the bulk of their money is meant for arguing about politics and winning elections.

Like DA, McLean’s company doesn’t receive campaign money directly. She seeks to bring donors together in a coordinated effort, requiring “annual investments … at or above minimum levels,” just like DA, although presumably her minimums are lower than the $200,000 in contributions (plus dues) that DA requires of its partners every year. 

For the first seven years of its existence, from 2010 to 2017, McLean’s Idaho Progressive Investor Network LLC had as its registered agent one Alex Sundali of Ketchum, who was an administrator both for Hull’s Matlock Capital and the Hull Family Foundation.

When McLean ran for mayor last year, Hull, his wife, and three of his children all donated at least $1,000 directly to her campaign, as did at least 10 other members of Democracy Alliance. 

These members included Stocks, the president of DA; Rob Stein, one of DA’s founders; Pat Stryker, a member; Anne Bartley, a DA co-founder; Arthur Lipson and his wife Rochelle Kaplan, both members; Joe Zimlich, a member of DA’s board; Kim Anderson, former vice president of DA; Jordan Markwith and Michael Kieschnick, both members; and Jeff Klueter, a former high-level Democratic opposition researcher who has worked with DA.

McLean also received a smattering of $1,000 donations from various tech and property development types in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Those direct donations, which were capped at $1,000 for the general election and another $1,000 for the runoff, are in a sense just the fingerprints left by high-level donors who do most of their work in secret.

Between those fingerprints and DA’s affinity with the League of Conservation Voters, it’s likely some of these same donors were behind the huge last-minute cash infusion that went for McLean’s outside campaign ads. (The late cash infusion, meant to avoid scrutiny until the after election, is a hallmark of the Soros network.)

For example, Hull gave $50,000 to a League PAC called LCV Victory Fund on Oct. 1, and Stryker gave LCV another $50,000 in two chunks, on Oct. 21 and Nov. 14.

The Idaho League affiliate received $100,000 on Oct. 9, another $65,000 on Oct. 16, $35,000 on Nov. 12, and $85,000 on Nov. 18, most of it to be spent on McLean.

Of course, LCV Victory Fund, as one of the left’s top channels of dark money, had a lot more cash than that to distribute – some $33.8 million raised so far this cycle – much of it from sources unknown to the public. In the 2018 election cycle, it spent more money than the National Rifle Association, more than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and even more than the Koch brothers’ well-known vehicle, Americans for Prosperity.

So far this cycle, LCV Victory’s biggest contributor has been the League itself – the marmot and rainbow side of the operation – with $8.5 million, but that’s followed closely by $6.8 million from the Sixteen Thirty Fund in Washington, D.C., which is dark money of the purest sort, rivalling anything put together by Karl Rove or the Kochs. The fund, which was a massive player in the 2018 election with $141 million spent, discloses almost no donor information. It is best known for bankrolling the effort to sandbag Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund is one of four interlocking funds controlled by a company called Arabella Advisors, the newest power player on the scene, and one that’s hardly been covered by the press. The company was founded in 2005 by Eric Kessler, a former Clinton staffer and veteran League of Conservation Voters executive. 

While it took 15 years for DA to donate $1.8 billion to various purposes, Arabella has handled $1.8 billion in expenditures in just the five years from 2013 to 2018. Of course, some of that money would be double-counted, as Democracy Alliance has been teaming up the last few years with Arabella. The latter offers a vast array of shell companies and fictitious business names, along with actual charities, that facilitate anonymous ad and Astroturf campaigns wherever they’re needed. 

According to a report by Issue One, LCV’s biggest outside backers — going back to 2010, when modern dark money was born — have been The Advocacy Fund, the Green Tech Action Fund, and NEO Philanthropy. All three of those are pass-through funds, which exist to scrub money of any trace to donors.

The largest recipient of LCV Victory Fund’s cash this year has been Priorities USA, a super PAC founded to support President Barack Obama’s reelection, which then became the primary super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

A point that should be more than obvious by now is that much of the money that passes through LCV comes from partisans and goes to partisan electioneering, with LCV functioning just to obscure the connections. That is textbook dark money. Yet since so many people get the warm fuzzies from thinking about the outdoors, all it takes for green candidates to avoid accountability is to mention running on a trail and claim, as McLean did, that it’s “about education and public lands and the future of our state.” 

And in an indirect sense, it is about the future — and shaping it through government. But the direct purpose of that money is to elect Democrats, so that Democrats at some point will do something for the marmots and rainbows.

McLean had two chances last year to tell the truth about her work as a fundraiser, but both times, she chose to lie. We’ll explore her obfuscation in Part 2 of this series tomorrow.

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