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Who's behind 'toxic' super PAC ads? We may never know.

The super PACs paying for a flood of negative ads in the GOP presidential race are supposed to disclose who they are Tuesday. Don't expect to learn much, campaign watchdogs say. 

By Staff writer / January 30, 2012

Newt Gingrich speaks at a rally in Orlando, Florida Monday. Jon Huntsman called super PACs that are not disclosing their donor lists "toxic."

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Washington

The secret donors funding a flood of negative ads in the 2012 presidential race are supposed to go public Tuesday. But loopholes in federal disclosure rules mean that Americans will still be left largely in the dark about who is financing what, campaign watchdogs say. 

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The landmark 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), opened a new era in campaign spending. This is the first presidential race since the Watergate era to allow unlimited individual and corporate spending for a candidate. Already, campaign spending by outside groups appears to be eclipsing money spent by candidates themselves.

Jon Huntsman Jr. called the resulting GOP campaign "toxic" when he dropped of the race earlier this month. But with the exception of the $10 million a Las Vegas casino billionaire gave to an independent group backing Newt Gingrich, not much is known about the identity or motivations of deep-pocket corporate and individual donors.

That is not expected to change much with the deadline Tuesday, largely because a gridlocked FEC has yet to come up with rules to govern how big-spending advocacy groups, called super political-action committees, should disclose who they are. 

The result, say critics, is a violation of the Supreme Court's demand for "effective disclosure."

“You can talk about disclosure all you want, but there have always been clever operators who can get around  the law,” says Bill Allison, senior analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group promoting transparency in government. 

“We saw it with soft money, with 527s, like the Swift Boat Veterans, and now with super PACs,” he adds, referring to big-money loopholes in previous campaign-finance reforms. 

Candidates' own campaigns are limited to donations of $2,500 per individual per election. But super PACs can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, or unions. Unlike other PACs, super PACs are allowed to expressly argue for a specific candidate. They must, however, disclose donors – though it’s not clear what exactly that means.

FEC commissioners, split 3 to 3 along the partisan lines of the presidents who appointed them, have yet to approve rules for regulations affected by the Supreme Court case.

“Such a proliferation of anonymous, negative speech cannot be good for our democracy,” said FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub in a Dec. 16 statement, after another FEC deadlocked vote on rulemaking. “Nor is it consistent with the view of eight Justices of the Supreme Court, who ruled that ‘effective disclosure’ is what enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.’”

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