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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
Fourteen conservative super PACs, nine of which supported specific Republican presidential candidates, got the bulk of their more than $67 million in donations from publicity-shy conservative billionaires and companies. Almost 26 percent of donations to Republican super PACs came directly from companies, but two super PACs—the one backing Newt Gingrich, and one backing former candidate Jon Huntsman—only collected money from individuals. (About 70 percent of the donations to the Huntsman super PAC came from Huntsman’s father. The major backer of the Gingrich super PAC is Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who gave $10 million in January. That money has not yet been reported to the FEC.)
A 15th conservative super PAC, Revolution PAC, which backs Ron Paul, missed the FEC filing deadline, but so far has spent almost $126,000 on ads and has given another $10,000 to another pro-Paul super PAC.
The four best-known Democratic super PACs didn’t raise nearly as much—perhaps because President Barack Obama is relying on more traditional sources of funding, or because Democrats don’t have to worry about a primary. They raised more than $13.7 million, getting the bulk of their donations from unions, liberal PACs and Hollywood types. Almost 36 percent of the donations to the liberal super PACs were from unions and union PACs.
Tuesday’s filings included only a handful of donations that raised questions about transparency.
A social-welfare group called the League of American Voters, Inc. gave $25,000 to American Crossroads on Dec. 12. The league, formed in the summer of 2010, is likely related to a better known Republican-leaning nonprofit, Americans for Tax Reform, run by strategist Grover Norquist; it rents office space from the group, and gets calls through its phone line.
But it’s not clear what the League of American Voters actually does. An intern who answered the phone said she was told the man who ran the group, Bob Adams, a longtime GOP activist, rarely came to the office. Adams did not respond to an email from a ProPublica reporter.
A Democrat-leaning super PAC, Citizens for Strength and Security, reported that almost all of its $72,000 came from a social-welfare nonprofit, also called Citizens for Strength and Security. Both are run out of post-office boxes at a UPS store on M Street in Washington.
The New York Times also reported on Thursday that $500,000 of the donations to Restore Our Future came from two companies with questionable backgrounds: Paumanok Partners LLC and Glenbrook LLC.
Some campaign-finance watchdogs had a problem with super PACs that reported receiving large payments from affiliated nonprofits for overhead and administrative expenses. A conservative super PAC, Freedomworks for America, reported getting almost half its total contributions—$1.34 million—as “in kind” payments from a linked social-welfare nonprofit, Freedomworks. The two leading Democrat super PACs, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, reported that they received a total of $438,000 from their affiliated nonprofits, for rent and other expenses.
Other Republican super PACs reported getting much less money from their affiliated nonprofits for operating expenses. Two Republican super PACs, Club for Growth Action and the Congressional Leadership Fund, reported getting less than $30,000 from their affiliated nonprofits for shared expenses. American Crossroads reported getting nothing from Crossroads GPS.
“Bottom line, you still have a problem that secret money is being channeled into the super PAC to help it function without the name of the donors ever being known ,” said Fred Wertheimer, who runs Democracy 21, which advocates campaign-finance reform. “In essence you are hiding the donors.”
The most prominent c4s seem to be saving their money for the general election. Crossroads GPS has spent less than $61,000 on political ads in the last year, paying for one anti-Obama ad in December and another released Wednesday. Other conservative social-welfare nonprofits, such as American Action Network and the National Organization for Marriage, have reported spending nearly $300,000 on ads for this election cycle. It’s not clear how much either group raised in 2011, as that amount of money does not have to be made public.
Liberal social-welfare nonprofits also appear to be waiting to spend their money. Priorities USA has not reported spending anything; American Bridge 21st Century Foundation has spent only $5,089 on an ad opposing Mitt Romney on Jan. 20.
UC Irvine professor Rick Hasen, an election-law expert who runs a popular blog, said early reports indicated that people and groups that didn’t mind being publicly identified gave to super PACs, while those preferring anonymity gave to c4 groups. But it was too early to say what might happen in the coming months, he added.
“Whatever conclusions people are tempted to make right now, you have to be tentative, it’s a moving object,” Hasen said. “Campaign finance is changing so quickly, it’s difficult in the midst of the election to get a handle on what’s going on.”
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