We don’t know yet what Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump and dark-money distributor Scot Mussi were texting about during last year’s campaign season. It could have been innocuous. It might have been sinister.

We only know that they were texting with each other dozens of times when Mussi was the chief funnel for undeclared money that apparently came from Arizona Public Service Co., went through Mussi’s Arizona Free Enterprise Club, and helped candidates whom APS favored for Corporation Commission.

At the same time Stump was texting with Mussi, he was also texting with those candidates, whom Stump also supported, and with an APS executive. A solar-supporting research group, the Checks and Balances Project, got the information about whom Stump was texting with via a public-records request.

The communications between Stump and Mussi definitely smell funny. But that’s just a light whiff compared to the reeking cloud over Arizona’s broader campaign-finance system.

Consider the complexity of new Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s position. Reagan fought off the most emblematic dark-money candidate of last year’s elections, Justin Pierce, to win the Republican primary. The Arizona Free Enterprise Club supported Pierce and opposed Reagan to the tune of about $535,000 in spending, but she won anyway.

Then, in the general election, she was the beneficiary of about $674,000 in dark-money spending by groups called Arizona’s Legacy and the 60 Plus Association. She defeated Democrat Terry Goddard and now is the state’s top elections official.

So what is she to do about the dark money that nearly knocked her out of the Republican primary race but then helped push her into office in the general? The latest round of this fight shows she’s toeing the party line against disclosure of donors to dark-money groups.

Earlier this month, the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission put out for public comment a proposed rule change that would force more groups formed to influence elections to disclose their donors. Reagan denounced the commission, saying they were trying to usurp her authority.

“Free-speech advocates should be deeply troubled by this brazen power grab,” she said.

Of course, this isn’t really about whether a person or group gets to exercise their free-speech right. It’s about whether groups that obviously exist to influence elections, like the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, are forced to disclose their donors.

In August, amid the primary campaign, then-Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett demanded that numerous groups doing TV ads and mailers, including the club, prove they are not primarily engaged in electioneering. The club, apparently anxious not to disclose its donors, has managed to drag the case out long enough that it’s still going on today.

But its notoriety is not going away, thanks to the Checks and Balances Project’s effort to force out what the group considers suspicious links between utilities, candidates and commissioners. Executive Director Scott Peterson requested the content of Stump’s text messages but so far has only received metadata that his team was able to filter to show whom Stump was texting with and when.

The project found that during the months before last year’s primary, Stump, an avid texter, exchanged 46 messages with Mussi; 54 texts with APS executive Barbara Lockwood; 85 messages with APS-aligned attorney Garry Hays; 18 texts with candidate Tom Forese; and 160 texts with candidate Doug Little or his wife, Linda.

On Thursday, I talked to longtime Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings, a Democrat, about what the disclosure means.

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“It looks like he (Stump) is a conduit, to make sure that Forese and Little aren’t having interaction with the lobbyists and the secret fund money,” Jennings said. “He’s interacting with them so the candidates don’t have to.”

Of course, all these people run in the same political, social or professional circles. And Stump says that explains the messages.

“I would note that Checks and Balances, an out-of-state, left-wing dark money group, is cherry-picking text logs to paint an absurdly distorted picture,” Stump said in an email. “It would be ridiculous for me to institute a moratorium on speaking to friends in the solar or political community at large simply because we were in campaign season.”

But of course this is how these wealthy people and companies assert their power these days. They form independent-expenditure groups and hire friends of officials, then they funnel their money into the right places to ensure that the people who get elected do their bidding in office.

The Corporation Commission, for example, could order utilities such as APS to disclose their political donations, but unsurprisingly has not.

It’s the way our system works. Our top officials benefited from it in the last election. So it would be ridiculous to expect them to stop it.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.