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With Spotlight on Super PACs, Nonprofits Escape Scrutiny
Posted on Feb 4, 2012
By Kim Barker, Al Shaw and Ariel Wittenberg, ProPublica
When super PACs announced their 2011 fundraising numbers earlier this week, it provided an early glimpse into how the new way of financing political campaigns may work in the upcoming election.
The filings showed that super PACs are indeed fundraising juggernauts, pulling in more than $98 million, with an average donation of $47,718. But so far, their sources of funding are largely transparent, not clouded in the kind of secrecy that some campaign-finance watchers had feared, and not relying that much on connected nonprofits that don’t disclose donors.
Instead, it was separate announcements this week from a cluster of politically active social welfare groups, known as 501(c)4s for their IRS tax code, that hinted at how secret money could factor into the upcoming election—and in a more direct fashion than initially forecast after the Supreme Court opened the door to super PACs two years ago.
On Tuesday, Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit arm of the GOP super PAC American Crossroads, announced it raised $32.6 million last year, far outstripping the super PAC itself, which raised $18.4 million. Priorities USA and American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, the nonprofit arms of the two largest Democrat super PACs, announced they raised $5.1 million. The super PACs, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, raised $8.1 million.
Unlike super PACs, which are required to identify their donors, social-welfare nonprofits such as Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA—also referred to as “dark money” groups—don’t have to disclose contributions to the FEC, although they are supposed to report spending on political ads within a day or two. The nonprofits have to disclose their annual revenue and expenses to the IRS, but often delay such filings. A few have not yet filed their taxes for 2010.
Campaign finance watchdogs had worried that 501(c)4s, or “c4s” as insiders call them, would filter money from unidentified donors through super PACs, but, if the recent filings are any guide, they may spend funds directly. This means c4s could have a more muscular, proactive role than previously anticipated.
“Certainly the Crossroads announcement of their fundraising totals suggest the c4s will be big players, and could be even bigger players than the super PACs themselves,” said Paul Ryan, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center.
Though social-welfare nonprofits have been around for years, they emerged as bigger players in the 2010 midterm elections.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC in January 2010 led to the creation of super PACS, the turbo-charged political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors, including corporations, unions and nonprofits, as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate when they spend that money.
The ruling also jump-started a new crop of nonprofits. Fifty-nine social-welfare groups reported spending more than $78.6 million on political ads during the 2010 election cycle, according to numbers provided to ProPublica by the Center for Responsive Politics. That money was spent mainly by Republican-leaning groups, including more than $26 million spent by the GOP-leaning American Action Network and more than $17 million by Crossroads GPS. For a time, those groups shared the same offices. It’s unknown where any of their money came from.
After the 2010 election, Democrats started forming their own super PACs and connected social-welfare nonprofits, such as Priorities USA Action, the super PAC, and Priorities USA, the nonprofit. Both were formed by former aides to President Barack Obama, although he and other Democrats have expressed ambivalence and even anger over the role of anonymous money in politics.
Super PAC filings released Tuesday showed few donations from social-welfare nonprofits, or from shell companies with mystery owners.
Republicans, engaged in a bitter primary, raised more than 74 percent of the super PAC money that could be attributed to partisan groups, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (Our “PAC Track” application keeps track of spending and donations to prominent super PACs, and has different numbers.) Of those groups, Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, raised more than $30 million. American Crossroads, the super PAC led by former Bush White House strategist Karl Rove and other top Republicans, including former party chairman Ed Gillespie and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, raised $18.4 million.
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