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Maria Butina was charged on Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation. (Photo: Maria Butina/Facebook)

As Russian Maria Butina Arrested for Trying to Infiltrate NRA, Trump's Treasury Dept. Makes It Easier for "Dark Money" Groups to Hide Secret Donors

The rule change, which watchdogs have long warned will expose U.S. elections to increased foreign meddling, comes as Trump's performance in Helsinki exacerbates worries about Russia's hold over him

Jessica Corbett

As President Donald Trump's "embarrassing spectacle" of a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin exacerbated concerns about foreign interference in U.S. elections—and Russian national Maria Butina was charged with conspiracy to act as a Russian agent for trying to infiltrate right-wing American political groups including the NRA—the U.S. Treasury on Monday revealed that it will no longer require certain nonprofits, including "dark money" groups, to disclose donors on their tax returns.

Reporters and politicians alike pointed to Butina's charges while raising alarm about the rule change, which takes effect immediately:

"The move frees labor unions, issue advocacy organizations, veterans groups, and other nonprofits that do not receive tax-exempt money from meeting confidential disclosure requirements set in place decades ago," Reuters explained, which further guards the privacy of political groups' rich donors, who "have complained that the disclosures to the IRS, though not public, were susceptible to media leaks."

In other words, as writer and journalism educator Dan Gillmor put it, "This is designed to make it easier than ever to inject uncountable, and unaccountable dark money into our politics."

"This is designed to make it easier than ever to inject uncountable, and unaccountable dark money into our politics."
—Dan Gillmor, writer and educator

Although U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claimed in a statement that "the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job" and "this change will in no way limit transparency," campaign watchdogs have long warned that such a move could expose U.S. elections to illegal interference from foreign entities.

As Donald Shaw at Sludge noted after the guidance was issued, a proposal to remove this reporting requirement was floated in 2016 legislation introduced by Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). Several groups—including the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Campaign Legal Center, Demand Progress, and Public Citizen—responded to Roskam's bill with alarm.

Doing away with the disclosure requirement, the groups asserted in a letter (pdf) to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, "would open the door wide for secret, unaccountable money from foreign governments, foreign corporations, and foreign individuals to be illegally laundered into federal elections through 501(c)(4) groups."

"If donor disclosure to the IRS is eliminated, no one will know whether a 501(c)(4) group has received foreign funds and is illegally spending them in our elections, other than the foreign donors and 501(c)(4) groups involved," the letter warned. "There will be no way to hold them accountable."

Americans are growing increasingly concerned about foreign efforts to influence U.S. elections—even though the U.S. government has meddled in other nations' elections for decades—as Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate additional claims of Russian interference and collusion with the Trump campaign or administration.

The charges filed against Butina are separate from Mueller's probe—which on Friday, ahead of Trump's meeting with Putin, led to indictment charges against 12 Russian military officers in addition to the charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities that Mueller's office announced in February.

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