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Citing Citizens United decision and better tech, Sunlight Foundation begins shutting itself down 

The highly regarded government transparency watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, said today that it is looking to combine its assets with some other group after failing to find a new leader. The search for an executive director has been going on for months, but no candidate could lay out a clear vision for the group’s future. If the foundation finds no suitable merger partner it seems possible that it will shut down.

In the meantime the nonprofit has begun shutting down some of its data tools—like OpenGov, which provided an easy way to track bills and their supporters in Congress. Of the 48 tools the group lists at its website 29 have already been retired. Interim executive director John Wonderlich will stay in the chair for the time being.

Chairman Mike Klein said in a blog post that the group’s original mandate has been diluted somewhat in the 2010s:

We are aware that the robust maturation of technology over the past decade has—happily but substantially—reduced the urgency of Sunlight’s early role as a leading transparency innovator. In addition, the board had to recognize that Sunlight’s initiating objective— to build support for better legislation against and regulation of the power of money in politics— has been significantly limited by the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision.

Acknowledging the positive effect on government transparency is one thing, but far more troubling is Klein’s statement about the Citizens United decision, which gave corporations “person” status where political giving is concerned, and also made it much tougher for journalists and watchdogs to follow the money trail.

The Sunlight Foundation already works with the Center for Responsive Politics, so a merger with that group may be a possibility. At the very least, some of the foundation’s data tools might be able to live on at the Center. 

The foundation was named after the famous quote from Justice Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”MS