PIERRE | Gov. Kristi Noem on Thursday defended her push to shield donor information of nonprofit organizations that influence public policy, including one group that was connected to her campaign.
The Republican governor said the bill was intended to protect the privacy rights of donors who wish to anonymously contribute to charities. Although she insisted it “does absolutely nothing on campaign finance,” critics said it would further the use of “dark money” — contributions raised to influence policy and elections without clearly disclosing the individual donors.
“Even with the exemption for campaign finance filings, it could facilitate legal protections for dark money spending in South Dakota’s elections,” said Austin Graham, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center based in Washington.
The bill from Noem, seen as a potential presidential hopeful in 2024, has sailed through the Republican-dominated Legislature so far. It would bar state officials from requiring nonprofit groups — including those that work to influence policy — to disclose information on donors. A second bill making its way through the Legislature would further protect donor privacy, allowing them to sue if their information were made public.
Such laws are not meant to protect donors to organizations like churches and soup kitchens, Graham said. Instead, they protect organizations that promote “social welfare" through research, lobbying and efforts to influence political campaigns.
These organizations, which are given nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service, can spend money to influence elections as long as it is not their primary purpose. Advocates for greater campaign finance transparency are worried by a trend of state legislatures moving to protect donor information in the last few years.
"Allowing the public to have access to information about the sources of money that are spent to influence their voting decisions is really a core tenet of a healthy democracy," Graham said.
Noem cast her bill as making sure state officials adhere to state laws that already say those organizations don't need to disclose donors.
But a nonprofit organization called Fight For Our Future was started in 2019 by her gubernatorial campaign chair, Steve Kirby. Noem's proposal would further shield donors to the organization, which could engage in political activity to some level.
The governor did not discuss the activities of the group but pointed out that Kirby is no longer affiliated with Fight For Our Future. She said there was no crossover between the organization and her campaign.
The current president of the organization is Suzanne Veenis, who worked on Noem's staff when she was a congresswoman and was listed on the organization's board when it was started in 2019. The organization has no website. Its articles of incorporation only say it was established to “further the common good and general welfare of the citizens of South Dakota.”
Veenis did not immediately return a request comment left at a phone number listed to her name.
Supporters of Noem's proposal have portrayed the legislation as a way to protect freedom of speech. They wanted to avoid what happened in California, where donors to conservative nonprofit groups Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Thomas More Law Center had their names revealed after the state attorney general's office required them to file the information. A legal battle that resulted after the organizations refused to disclose their donors is slated to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Democrat Rep. Ryan Cwach said he is concerned that the bill would enshrine into law the practice of shielding organizations from disclosing who was giving to influence political campaigns. He said it could shape South Dakota political campaigns into what is seen at the national level, where corporate money and cash-rich interest groups flood elections without disclosing donors.
“Voters are getting browbeaten by all these different groups by these ads that we don’t know who’s behind them or what’s behind them,” he said.