Five years after Citizens United, new report finds wealthy have unprecedented influence

"Special interests are hijacking our elections."

WASHINGTON D.C. - It's been five years since the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on how much money corporations and unions could spend putting their favorite candidates in office. The result, according to eight of the nation’s largest government watchdog groups, is that regular Americans are losing their voice in democracy while a “tiny number” of wealthy individuals have gained record influence.

In the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, the Court ruled that corporations and unions were entitled to same first amendment rights to free speech as private citizens as long as they are working independent of the campaigns.

The Washington D.C.-based watchdog Public Citizen suggests in a new report, however, that the very groups claiming to be independent in the wake of the Court’s decision are often closely aligned with a single candidate.

“Special interests are hijacking our elections,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch program. “All this newly allowed money wasn’t supposed to be corrupting, wasn’t supposed to be connected to candidates, and it is.”

Public Citizen studied the 2014 election cycle funds and how the money moved through the nation’s largest Super PACs  -- a type of political action committee created in 2010 that may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, or individuals and spend unlimited sums on campaigns. Of those groups spending at least $100,000 in the recent elections, 45 percent devoted all their resources to helping a single candidate.

“The prevalence of single-candidate outside groups, often run by their friends and former consultants, further discredits the Supreme Court’s assumption that unregulated groups would operate independently of the people they support,” said Taylor Lincoln, co-author of Public Citizen’s report.

Among groups the report spotlighted was Texans for a Conservative Majority, a super-Pac founded by Randy Cubriel, who once worked for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). All $1.1 million spent by the PAC went to opposing Steve Stockman, Cornyn’s rival in the primary election.

The $549,999 spent by All Georgians Together went entirely to the U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Michelle Nunn. The group is headed by Keith Mason, who ran the youth organization of Nunn’s father, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), and worked on some of his campaigns.

In conjunction with Public Citizen, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law released a separate report on the impact of the high court’s ruling on U.S. Senate campaigns. It found that outside spending in those campaigns has more than doubled since 2010, growing from $220 million to $486 million in 2014.

“What's happening now is that the rich people get to express their opinion in a way that gets listened to and everybody else doesn't,” said Ian Vandewalker, counsel with the Brennan Center.

Of $1 billion spent by Super PACs on federal elections since 2010, $600 million came from 195 people and their spouses, he said.

The United States Public Interest Research group said it found that winning U.S. Senate candidates raised about  $3,300 a day, creating undue pressure on the candidates and providing an incentive to put the interests of the most wealthy donors before average or even above average Americans.

The eight public interest groups are pushing for a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court ruling.

If you have a tip or an update, email mark.greenblatt@scripps.com. You can also  follow updates to this story on Twitter @greenblattmark

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