Secretive groups ran $25M in ads for state races

17 Dec 2014 | Author: | No comments yet »

Nonprofits spent nearly $25 million on ads, but who was behind the money is hard to say.

WASHINGTON – Shadowy outside groups broadcast an estimated $25 million worth of political ads on local TV stations with a goal of shaping state-level elections this year, and their full roster of donors is unlikely to ever be known, according to an analysis released Wednesday.Sandra Kennedy expected a tough race this fall for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission, but the Democrat didn’t expect to get socked with a $1.4 million onslaught of TV ads from a mysterious group that dredged up a past legal dispute. While the $25 million is a small slice of the $850 million spent on ads in statewide races, the amount is still almost twice what outside groups shelled out during the last midterm elections in 2010.

The Center for Public Integrity analysis also showed that the secretive outside groups were quite successful, exceeding the victory rates of groups that disclose their donors. The group called Save Our Future Now, however, flooded the state’s airwaves with ads running nearly 1,400 times. “Times are tough in Arizona, but Sandra Kennedy voted to hurt Arizona families.

Kennedy voted for higher sales taxes, but she didn’t even pay her own bills,” one ad said. “Kennedy owned a restaurant chain and didn’t pay the rent.” The ad referenced a royalty infringement suit involving Kennedy and restaurant chain Denny’s Inc. over a franchise that she and her husband owned. State and federal law do not require the group to publicly disclose its funders because such politicking is not the group’s “primary purpose.” So it’s nearly impossible for Kennedy or other Arizonans to prove who funded the attack ads that helped lead to her loss in November.

Most of them were successful, far more so than independent political groups overall: these secretive nonprofits either backed a winning candidate or, in the majority of cases, bashed the loser in 62 percent of the races in which they sponsored TV ads tracked by Kantar Media/CMAG. And overall 51 percent of election advertisers, including candidates and political parties, on the state level were successful, according to the Center’s analysis. In 24 states including Arizona — where nearly one out of every seven ads was sponsored by such entities — these mysterious groups were boosted by the 2010 U.S. The organization used research from Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising and offers a widely accepted estimate of the money spent to air each spot.

Attempts by the Internal Revenue Service to regulate these tax-exempt groups called 501(c)(4)s — and allegations that the agency targeted conservative groups with its audits — resulted in the 2013 resignation of Lois Lerner, the director of that portion of the IRS. In Kansas, a state where a tight governor’s race attracted more ads from such mysterious groups than in any other state, a different kind of nonprofit called Alliance for a Free Society Inc., ran ads against Democratic nominee Paul Davis, who lost to incumbent Republican Gov. The group incorporated in Delaware only in July, so detailed information about its leadership, lobbying and political activity will not be released by the IRS until 2015 — months after Kansas voters saw the anti-Davis ads and cast ballots. Some conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have argued that keeping donors secret is constitutionally protected anonymous political speech. But the groups countered that the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper first published the statements in an editorial, noting that some legislators had declined to accept the increase.

The two organizations that paid for the ads, which ran nearly 750 times, were theWisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council and the First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund. Because the ads didn’t specifically advocate for Bernard Schaber’s defeat, the groups didn’t have to disclose what they had spent — or the source of their funding — to the state’s ethics board, which regulates campaign finance. It says on its website it is “dedicated to educating Americans on transparency, waste, fraud, hypocrisy and best practices at all levels of government.” Its donors, and its interest in Wisconsin state Senate District 19, are not transparent. “That’s what makes it hard for the general public.

They don’t pay attention to who is saying it,” she said. “They pay attention to the message.” At least four mysterious groups targeted candidates for state judicial races — contests historically removed from political blood sport. Such secretive spending is especially concerning within the judicial community because donors could come before a judge whom their dollars helped elect.

In Arkansas, a group called the Law Enforcement Alliance of America spent more than $160,000 to air three ads aimed at influencing the nonpartisan race for state Supreme Court. However, Cullen said he was referring to his client’s conviction for enticing a minor — not the child pornography charge mentioned in the ad — and that he characterized that crime as “victimless” because his client engaged in sexually explicit Internet chat-room conversations with undercover police officers pretending to be young girls.

The LEAA, a Virginia-based nonprofit, does not have to publicly reveal its donors, nor is it required to file campaign finance reports with the Arkansas secretary of state. The LEAA has not made available its own tax returns from the past two years, keeping the public in the dark about the groups’ leadership and any of its recent donations to other organizations. In one of the few positive ads aired by political nonprofits, the group supported Republican Justice Judi French’s successful re-election to Ohio’s high court.

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