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- 10/16/14--02:00: _Gubernatorial hopef...
- 10/16/14--07:51: _Ads in U.S. Senate ...
- 10/16/14--02:12: _Bloomberg helps Dem...
- 10/20/14--08:02: _Center for Public I...
- 10/20/14--06:22: _Comparison shopping...
- 10/21/14--06:53: _GAO takes on Medica...
- 10/21/14--06:57: _Energy Department i...
- 10/21/14--13:01: _Ex-senators Breaux ...
- 10/21/14--12:09: _Super PACs exploit ...
- 10/22/14--11:20: _Pennsylvania super ...
- 10/23/14--07:50: _Corporations, advoc...
- 10/23/14--02:00: _North Carolina's st...
- 10/24/14--10:09: _Power shifts to out...
- 10/27/14--06:15: _Health insurers pre...
- 10/29/14--02:00: _Another whistleblow...
- 10/29/14--02:00: _California takes on...
- 10/29/14--02:46: _Flush with mystery ...
- 10/29/14--13:35: _Center wins four Ep...
- 10/30/14--07:19: _U.S. Senate races t...
- 10/30/14--08:35: _Mega-donors give bi...
- 10/16/14--02:00: Gubernatorial hopefuls outspend U.S. Senate candidates
- While the same number of governorships and U.S. Senate seats are up for election (36), spending on gubernatorial races has outpaced the Senate tab by well over $50 million. An estimated $379 million has been spent on governors’ race ads while $321 million has been spent on ads for U.S. Senate races.
- The governors’ races in Florida and Illinois are more expensive than any race, federal or state, thus far. A big buy in the Senate race in North Carolina has bumped it to third place, surpassing the Pennsylvania governor’s contest.
- Although the Florida governor’s race is the most expensive in the nation with more than $62 million put toward television ads, it would take another $35 million between now and the election to match the 2010 contest.
- Both major party candidates in the Illinois governor’s race are the top two candidate spenders. Republican Bruce Rauner has spent nearly $9 million more on ads than Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, with Rauner's total reaching $25 million.
- Eight of the 10 candidates spending the most on TV ads are running for governor. The two exceptions are Senate candidates and incumbents Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who rank eighth and ninth, respectively.
- 10/16/14--07:51: Ads in U.S. Senate contests turn nasty
- 10/16/14--02:12: Bloomberg helps Democratic governors' group close gap on Republicans
- 10/20/14--06:22: Comparison shopping for a health plan
- 10/21/14--06:53: GAO takes on Medicare Advantage spending
- 10/21/14--12:09: Super PACs exploit disclosure loophole
- 10/22/14--11:20: Pennsylvania super PAC gets 'dark money' infusion
- New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy, which advocates for charter schools and other education reforms, received $100,000
- Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group with ties to the tea party movement, received $100,000
- the National Right to Work Committee, a group that “combats compulsory unionism,” received $25,000
- 10/23/14--07:50: Corporations, advocacy groups spend big on ballot measures
The two most expensive propositions were in California. Proposition 46 has drawn more than $23 million in ad spending, while Proposition 45 has attracted $20.5 million. Almost all of it has come from two groups: No on 45 — Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs and No on 46 — Patients, Providers and Healthcare Insurers to Contain Health Costs. The “no” groups are backed by doctors and insurance companies, including The Doctors Company and Blue Shield of California, fighting to stop measures that would force doctors to undergo drug testing and insurers to get new approval for rate hikes, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state campaign finance records.
Coming in third place was a Colorado amendment to expand gambling, which has drawn about $12 million in ad spending. Of that, $6.4 million came from Coloradans for Better Schools, a group backed by a Rhode Island casino company, Twin River Casino. Competing casinos in Colorado are helping fund $5.7 million in ads opposing the measure through a group called Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos.
Ranking fourth were two California measures that have been touted as an inseparable duo: Proposition 1, which would authorize a bond issue for water infrastructure projects, and Proposition 2, which would change the state’s “rainy day fund.” Most of the $7.6 million spent on ads supporting the two measures came from California Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democrat has not run any ads for his re-election bid, instead buying $5.6 million in ads through his campaign committee to back the propositions.
Rounding out the top five, with $5 million in ads, was an Oregon measure that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled. The No on 92 Coalition, fueled by groups such as Monsanto and the J.M. Smucker Company, is battling natural food companies funding the Vote Yes on Measure 92 committee.
In Washington, television viewers have already been treated to more than 4,000 ads about a pair of conflicting ballot measures concerning background checks for gun purchases, with most of them coming from a group supporting expanded background checks. That organization — backed by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety fund, early Amazon investor Nick Hanauer and a handful of Microsoft executives, according to state records — spent an estimated $3 million on ads. The other side, backed by gun enthusiasts and sporting clubs, is trailing behind, with only about $58,000 spent.
In North Dakota, the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, among others, have lent their support to a measure that would dedicate some of the state’s oil tax revenues to land preservation. North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks has ponied up nearly $485,400 for ads—more than double the cost for all the ads run by candidates for state offices this year. The group’s opponents have spent about $134,000 on ads so far.
In Maine, voters are considering a ballot measure that would ban traps, bait and dog chases in bear hunting. The Humane Society has backed a group that has spent about $860,000 on ads favoring the ban so far. The other side, Maine’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Council, has spent about $713,000 on ads.
- 10/23/14--02:00: North Carolina's state of political hate
- 10/24/14--10:09: Power shifts to outsiders in U.S. Senate fight
- 10/27/14--06:15: Health insurers press for high-deductible, low-benefit policies
- 10/29/14--02:00: Another whistleblower suit alleges Medicare Advantage fraud
- 10/29/14--13:35: Center wins four Eppy awards
- Best News Website with under 1 million unique monthly visitors for www.publicintegrity.org;
- Best Investigative/Enterprise Feature on a Website for Big Oil, Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas (Tie with Post and Courier);
- Best Online Infographics on a Website for China Leaks: Who Uses Offshore Tax Havens, produced by The Center’s Chris Zubak-Skees with the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists;
- Best News/Political Blog with under 1 million unique monthly visitors for Consider the Source and Primary Source, the Center’s money and politics investigative project.
- 10/30/14--07:19: U.S. Senate races to attract 1 million TV ads
- 10/30/14--08:35: Mega-donors give big to state candidates
Illinois Republican candidate Bruce Rauner, who has given more than $14* million, mostly to fund his own campaign for governor;
Pennsylvania Democrat Tom Wolf, who has used $10 million of his own money in an attempt to unseat unpopular incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican;
- The Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has given at least $9.6 million to gubernatorial candidates in at least six states;
Arizona gubernatorial candidate Christine Jones, who gave more than $5.3 million, nearly all to fund her own campaign, only to lose in the Republican primary;
- And Chicago-based hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who has given more than $4.7 million, mostly to Rauner in Illinois.
With less than three weeks to go until the Nov. 4 elections, roughly $817 million has already been spent on television ads for state-level office and the U.S. Senate. Here are some facts about the ad wars:
Source:Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data through Oct. 13 from Kantar Media/CMAG
Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.
Politicians’ battle for the U.S. Senate has taken a turn toward the dark side.
More than seven in 10 U.S. Senate-focused television advertisements last week attacked or criticized a political candidate either in full or in part, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of preliminary data from Kantar Media/CMAG, an ad tracking firm.
Only about 28 percent of U.S. Senate-focused television advertisements last week contained a “positive” message meant to promote, not attack, a candidate, the data indicates.
That’s even more negativity than the week before, which, percentage-wise, featured marginally more positive-sounding ads. Campaigns seemed downright cheery two months ago, when about 42 percent of U.S. Senate-directed ads featured a positive message during that month’s second week.
Crown the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as last week’s ultimate hater.
Not only did it produce more TV ads than any other candidate, political committee or nonprofit group, but all 6,800 or so of them — across 10 battleground states — contained content that overwhelmingly slammed a Republican U.S. Senate candidate rather than promote a Democrat.
About 1,500 negative DSCC ads hit Iowa alone, pummeling Republican Joni Ernst, who’s running in a close race against Democrat Bruce Braley, a sitting congressman.
The candidates largely stayed above the fray and let others play dirty.
The more than 1,500 ads that Ernst’s own campaign ran last week were all positive, while most of the nearly 1,000 ads Braley’s campaign sponsored were similarly sunny. But other groups on both sides of the partisan divide — including conservative super PAC American Crossroads and the liberal Sierra Club — slung mud at either Ernst or Braley.
Nonprofit organization Crossroads GPS ranks tops among conservatives’ negative Nancys with more than 3,500 U.S. Senate-focused attack ads splashed across Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina. The National Republican Senatorial Committee produced about 1,900 demonstrably nasty ads targeting Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa or North Carolina.
But Senate election ugliness smacked Kansas harder than any other state last week, where just 4 percent of TV ads in this tossuprace contained a “positive” message that promoted either Republican incumbent Pat Roberts or his independent challenger, Greg Orman.
The rest of the ads either contrasted the candidates in stark terms or outright bashed one of the candidates. Overall, about 3,100 TV ads aired last week in Kansas —an 80 percent increase when compared to the week before, according to the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.
Neither the campaigns of Roberts or Orman produced a single TV ad with a “positive” tone during the past two weeks. Last week alone, Roberts’ campaign aired about 1,000 TV ads that attacked Orman. Orman’s campaign, for its part, produced about 900 that at least in part criticized Roberts.
Several other key U.S. Senate races were similarly uncivil.
Among the snippiest last week: New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen faces Republican Scott Brown (8 percent of TV ads were positive). That wasn’t a downer for WMUR-TV 9, New Hampshire’s only network affiliated station, which aired 830 Senate-focused ads last week — more than any other station nationwide. It also led all stations the week before.
North Carolina’s Senate race, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces Republican Thom Tillis, wasn’t much more positive than the New Hampshire race: 10 percent of ads there were positive.
Such a scorched-earth strategy isn’t without risk.
“When both sides engage in high levels of attack with little advocacy, voters may decide — a pox on both your houses — to simply stay home,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who’s work focuses heavily on political communication. “Importantly, voters who know only why to vote against candidates will have trouble seeing the connection between campaigning and governance.”
The most upbeat Senate race last week? The suddenly white-hot South Dakota contest, which attracted more than 1,700 Senate-focused ads last week — the vast majority positive —now that national Democrats and campaign finance reform outfit Mayday PAC have deemed the race in play. Republican Mike Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland, Democrat and independent Larry Pressler are all polling close to one another.
In all, about 66,000 TV ads targeted U.S. Senate races last week. That’s up from about 57,000 the week before.
Republicans must capture six seats to seize control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats.
Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.
A national Republican group devoted to helping elect GOP governors has outraised its Democratic counterpart by more than $20 million in the first nine months of this year, but reports filed Wednesday with the Internal Revenue Service show that the gap is narrowing.
Though the Republican Governors Association raised about $68 million through the end of September, the Democratic Governors Association has been catching up with a record haul of more than $45 million, fueled by labor unions and former New York City mayor, billionaire and political independent, Michael Bloomberg.
The groups were neck-and-neck in the most recent quarter, with the Democrats only a half-million shy of the Republican group, which counts energy companies and billionaires David Koch and Sheldon Adelson among its top donors.
Battling over 36 governorships up for election this year, the two Washington, D.C.,-based groups have used those donations to go head-to-head on the airwaves, contribute directly to candidates and fund other political groups.
On television alone, the groups and their state branches account for nearly one-third of all television spending by independent groups in state-level races.
The Republican group has used its fundraising edge to purchase an estimated $19.7 million in television ads in 16 states through Oct. 13, more than any other non-party group in the country, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
The Democratic Governors Association has been the second-leading independent group, buying an estimated $12.3 million worth of ads in five states.
The Republican spending spree has been backed by multimillion-dollar donations in 2014 from a who’s who of Republican political donors.
Industrialist Koch, casino magnate Adelson and the private equity firm of 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava each contributed $2.5 million through the end of September to the Republican Governors Association.
Private equity head Mike Shannon and his wife, Mary Sue, along with hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin round out the group’s top five donors, at $2 million from the Shannons and $1.5 million from Griffin. Two energy companies, Devon Energy, at $900,000, and Duke Energy, at $775,000, are among the Republican group’s top 10 donors overall.
The top five donors to the Democratic group are all labor unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, has given $3.7 million to the Democratic governors’ group this year, while the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and their related political groups, have been the second- and third-largest donors, giving $2.8 million and $2.5 million, respectively. The Service Employees International Union and United Commercial Workers International Union each has given more than $2 million.
The unions have helped narrow the gap between the two political groups, especially in the final months leading up to the election. In 2010, the last time this many governors faced election, the Republican group held a $32.5 million fundraising advantage through the same period.
The biggest individual donor to the Democratic Governors Association is Bloomberg, who gave $1.1 million in September. It appears to be the first time he has contributed to either organization.
Bloomberg, a Democrat turned Republican turned independent, has also contributed nearly $7 million to Independence USA PAC, a super PAC active at both the federal and state levels that supports centrist candidates.
But the super PAC’s spending appears to be at cross-purposes with Bloomberg’s support of the Democratic governors’ group.
So far, the Independence USA PAC has spent more than $750,000 on TV ads supporting Rick Snyder, Michigan’s incumbent Republican governor. Meanwhile, aided by Bloomberg’s donation, the Democratic Governors Association has spent $7.2 million on ads mostly critical of Snyder.
The governors’ groups are what are known as 527s, tax-exempt organizations named for the IRS code they fall under, which can accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions.
Both groups, which have been in existence for more than a decade, got a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which, in conjunction with related federal rulings, removed restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions, and forced 24 states to revise their campaign finance rules.
Overall, independent groups have accounted for more than 20 percent of the estimated $495.4 million in spending on state- level races so far. That represents an increase compared to 2010, in which non-candidate and non-party groups accounted for only 12 percent of the $921.3 million spent.
Levine will primarily write for the Center for Public Integrity's “Consider the Source” project, which investigates campaign finance and political influence issues in the post-Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission era of politics. She will also contribute to "Primary Source," a 2014 Webby Award finalist for top political blog.
For four years before joining the Center for Public Integrity, Levine worked as research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, where she managed a five-person staff that exposed the activities of politically active “dark money” nonprofits and uncovered instances of congressional self-dealing.
Carrie previously worked as a reporter and associate editor for The National Law Journal, where she covered the inner workings of lobbying firms and lobbyists’ strategies.
She also previously reported for The Charlotte Observer, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Massachusetts, and The Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Boston University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan and independent news organization specializing in investigative journalism on significant public policy issues. Among its many honors, the Center for Public Integrity won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.
During the last few weeks of this year, most of us will need to make a decision about our health insurance coverage for 2015, regardless of whether we get it through an employer or buy it on our own. But unless you live in California, chances are you won’t find much information about how satisfied people are with their existing health plans or how many complaints are filed against them.
Now that the law requires us to have health insurance — and buy it from a private insurer unless we’re eligible for a government program like Medicare or Medicaid — you’d think it would be easy to discover which health plans rank the best and which ones bring up the rear.
There are some online resources to find out how much various plans would cost in monthly premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. If you can’t get coverage at work and want to compare costs among competing health plans, you can go to healthcare.gov, maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or a private online source like healthinsurance.org, which has been around since 1994.
But finding customer satisfaction and clinical performance information and complaint ratios is a lot more difficult.
California is the only state I know of where you can find data on both, but it’s not likely that even many Golden Staters understand how to discover it or go to the trouble of seeking it out.
Back in 2000 when Democrat Gray Davis was governor, California began operating an agency called the Office of The Patient Advocate (OPA). According to its website, OPA was created “to help health plan members get the care they deserve and to promote transparency and quality health care” by publishing an annual “Quality of Care Report Card.” The most recent report card was released last Wednesday.
If you’re a Californian and care as much about good customer service as you do about how much you’ll have to pay for coverage, you’ll choose one of the nonprofit health plans, regardless of where you live in the state, after spending a few minutes on the OPA site.
One consistent theme over the years has been that nonprofit plans have ranked better than their for-profit competitors in both customer satisfaction and complaint ratio ratings. That comes as no surprise to me. During the nearly 20 years I worked for big for-profit health insurers, we always trailed the nonprofits. One reason: nonprofits have made it a priority to assure that their customers are satisfied and get the care they need. The top priority of the for-profits, I know from experience, is to enhance shareholder value, a euphemism for making sure Wall Street is satisfied.
In last week’s OPA report, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, both nonprofits, were the only plans to score four stars (an “excellent” rating) in both clinical performance and patient experience. They were followed by Blue Shield of California, Sharp Health Plan (in greater San Diego), and Western Health Advantage (in the Sacramento area). All of those plans are also nonprofits.
The plans with the fewest stars were Aetna, Anthem Blue Cross, Cigna, Health Net and UnitedHealthcare of California, all for-profit companies.
Conversely, the HMOs with the highest ratio of complaints and inquiries were the for-profits and the ones with the lowest were the nonprofits. Cigna, where I used to work, had the highest ratio. It had more than three times as many complaints and inquiries as the Kaiser HMOs and nearly four times as many as Sharp.
Not only have these results been consistent over the years in California, they are also consistent with the national health plan rankings compiled by Consumer Reports and the National Committee for Quality Assurance.
Regardless of where you live, you should check out those rankings before selecting your insurance carrier for 2015. You’ll find that, just as in California, the nonprofits lead the pack and the for-profits are eating their dust.
In fact, there are no for-profits among the NCQA’s top 25 health plans. And it has been this way for as long as the NCQA has been publishing its annual ranking.
Open enrollment for health plans offered on the state and federal exchanges for 2015 will start in just four weeks, on November 15. Most employer-sponsored health plans will also have open enrollment at approximately the same time. It would be well worth your time to see how the health plans available to you stack up to competitors in quality and customer satisfaction — as well as cost.
A Congressional committee has taken aim at waste in the popular Medicare Advantage health insurance program for seniors, ordering an extensive audit of billing errors and overcharges by insurers — mistakes estimated to cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year.
The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, is conducting the probe at the request of the House Ways and Means Committee. Results are due next spring.
GAO auditors will target efforts by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs the senior care program, to ensure the privately run health plans are paid accurately and that any overpayments are recovered for taxpayers. Medicare Advantage is an alternative to standard Medicare and is mostly run by private insurance carriers.
“Right now everything is on the table,” said James Cosgrove, who heads the GAO’s health care division. “This is not something we have focused on before.”
The GAO audit comes in the wake of the Center for Public Integrity’s “Medicare Advantage Money Grab” series published in June, which showed that the government has struggled for years to stop the health plans from charging too much.
Medicare pays health plans using a complex formula known as a risk score, which is supposed to raise rates for sicker patients and lower them for people in good health. But the industry has long faced criticism that some plans overstate how sick some patients are to boost Medicare revenue, a practice known as “upcoding.”
“Given the prevalence of upcoding by some MA plans, we hope that the GAO audit will result in CMS paying plans more accurately and fairly while reducing wasteful overpayments,” said David A. Lipschutz, an attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade group, wouldn’t comment on the GAO audit. CMS had no comment either.
Medicare Advantage has grown explosively under the risk-scoring formula, which Congress put in place in 2004. Officials expect the program to cost taxpayers as much as $160 billion this year, as enrollment nears 16 million, or about one in three elderly and disabled people on Medicare.
In the past, however, CMS officials have stated that inflated risk scores drain billions from the treasury. CMS has largely trusted health plans to identify and return any money paid in error and has repeatedly scaled back its efforts to go after overpayments, often in the face of industry lobbying and pressure.
GAO reviewers are zeroing in on Medicare’s primary tactic for recouping overcharges, a secretive audit process called Risk Adjustment Data Validation, or RADV.
Medicare officials have quietly conducted these audits since 2008. But they have never imposed stiff financial penalties for overcharges that have been uncovered through the RADV process, despite evidence that billing errors have been deeply rooted and waste tax dollars at an alarming clip, records show.
For instance, audits of six plans found that health plans couldn’t justify payments from the government for 40 percent or more of their patients. The resulting overpayments were pegged at nearly $650 million for 2007 alone — just for those six plans.
The Center for Public Integrity investigation confirmed in June that federal officials, after years of haggling with health plans, settled the six audits for pennies on the dollar. One New York state health plan that federal auditors said may have been overpaid by as much as $41 million in 2007, coughed up just $157,777 to settle the matter in December 2013, for instance.
The Obama administration has taken years to get a new round of the RADV audits underway amid quibbling with the industry over the details.
In early November 2013, CMS officials notified as many as 30 Medicare Advantage plans that they had been selected for audit. But more than 500 Medicare Advantage contracts are now in force, so it would take the government years to make sure all the plans are billing accurately.
CMS officials have declined to name the companies chosen for the 30 audits this year, or the results. So it’s not clear if any have been completed. The Center for Public Integrity in May sued CMS under the Freedom of Information Act, in part to secure a list of the audited plans and the results.
GAO auditors also want to know why CMS has not enlisted the help of private collection agencies to crack down on billing fraud by Medicare Advantage groups.
These private firms, known as Recovery Audit Contractors in Washington bureaucratese, have been pursuing fraud by doctors and hospitals for years. The firms get to keep a percentage of any billing fraud they uncover, though medical groups have criticized them for being overly aggressive.
The Medicare Advantage industry has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress as the program has grown. In recent years, the industry has successfully lobbied to scale back planned pay cuts to the health plans.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade group, spent nearly $5 million lobbying on a variety of issues, including Medicare Advantage, from January through June of 2014, according to the Senate records.
While government fraud investigations have lagged, whistleblower lawsuits that allege overcharging by Medicare Advantage insurers are stacking up in federal courts.
In one case, Miami physician Olivia Graves alleged that a Humana-affiliated clinic had diagnosed an abnormally high number of patients with conditions such as diabetes with complications, which boosted Medicare payments, but were “not supported by the medical records.”
The suit alleges that Humana knew about the practices and did nothing to stop the overcharging. The suit argues that Medicare paid thousands of dollars for each patient who was wrongly diagnosed. Humana has denied the allegations.
In a separate civil case, Josh Valdez, a former Bush administration health official, alleges that two Puerto Rico Medicare Advantage health plans bilked the government out of as much as $1 billion by inflating patient risk scores. The plans, which at the time were owned by a subsidiary of New-Jersey based Aveta, Inc., denied the allegations.
When nuclear engineer Donna Busche was firedin February from her job managing safety at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, she complained that it was a reprisal for her repeated warnings that the government and its contractors were ignoring serious safety risks there.
Energy Department inspector general Gregory Friedman took the allegations seriously enough to open an investigation after the department asked him to in March. But on Monday, his office announced in an exceptionally brief report that it had been blocked from conducting its work by the refusal of primary Hanford contractor Bechtel National Inc., as well as Bechtel subcontractor and Busche’s employer, URS Energy and Construction Inc., to turn over 4,540 documents.
Those documents included emails that referenced Ms. Busche during the period just before her firing, according to Tara Porter, a spokeswoman for the inspector general.
“We did not have access to the full inventory of documents which we felt were necessary to conduct our review,” wrote Friedman in Monday’s report. “Thus, we were unable to complete our inquiry and accordingly disclaim any opinion regarding the circumstances of Ms. Busche's termination.”
According to Friedman’s report, the Energy Department’s contracts with Bechtel and between Bechtel and URS require the companies to “produce for government audit all documents acquired or generated under the contract” — even those for which an attorney-client privilege could be asserted. But Bechtel and URS refused to do so because they concluded that releasing the emails would “constitute a waiver of privilege” in future litigation with Busche, and because they felt the contract provisions they signed were unenforceable, his report states.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Monday afternoon, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noted the failure of Friedman’s office to reach any conclusions and asked the department for a briefing about “DOE’s plans to address the contractors’ lack of cooperation with the Inspector General’s request.” She asked that the information be provided to the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which she chairs, by the end of October.
Bechtel, in a statement published on its website on Monday, denied that the company had been uncooperative. Bechtel offered to give the inspector general’s office access to legally protected documents “in a way that preserves those protections,” but the inspector general declined that offer, according to the statement.
In response, Porter reiterated that Bechtel “never proposed a process which addressed the legitimate needs of the Office of Inspector General” to access the documents it needed. URS, for its part, only agreed to provide documents that were non-responsive to the inspector general’s needs, according to Friedman’s report.
URS spokeswoman Pamela Blum said in an emailed statement that the company “respects” the inspector general’s decision.” The statement also said Busche’s claim is “without merit” and that each URS employee is “encouraged and empowered to raise concerns about safety.”
In a telephone interview, Busche said she is satisfied that the inspector general tried “diligently” to get the documents. But she said that in her experience, this was “exactly how Bechtel and URS operated at Hanford.”
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit in Seattle that has assisted Hanford whistleblowers, expressed skepticism about Friedman’s diligence. “They call this a law enforcement agency?” he said. “They’re letting Bechtel and URS fail to comply with an OIG request for information. That’s obstructing justice.” He called Busche the highest-ranking nuclear whistleblower he knows about.
The public affairs office at the Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Former Sens. Trent Lott and John Breaux were part of a team paid $150,000 by a Russian bank to lobby on U.S. sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, according to a new disclosure their firm has filed with the U.S. Senate.
The former senators and their colleagues at Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., were retained over the summer by a banking subsidiary of the Russian oil giant Gazprombank and lobbied the Senate and the Department of State on the sanctions and other banking laws, according to the filing.
Disclosure of their connection with Gazprombank by The Center for Public Integrity on Sept. 2 sparked widespread public criticism of the former senators. The new filing confirms that Breaux and Lott “acted as a lobbyist” on issues related to sanctions, but also states that they “are no longer expected to act as a lobbyist” for the bank.
Gazprombank is Russia’s third largest bank. On July 16 — a month and a half before Breaux and Lott filed a document stating they had begun their lobbying — the U.S. Treasury Department added the bank to a list of Russian firms barred from debt financing with U.S. institutions.
Lott and Breaux were listed as the main lobbyists in that initial lobbying registration. The new disclosure covers the period from the registration through the end of September.
Breaux and Lott declined to respond to inquiries by the Center. But Breaux, in an interview with The Times-Picayune newspaper published on Sept. 9, said they registered to lobby “out of an abundance of caution.” At that point, Breaux and Lott hadn’t done any lobbying for the bank, the newspaper quoted him as saying. It said the firm’s Moscow office had asked them to look into possible Congressional actions related to Gazprombank.
The current disclosure does not say what work Breaux or Lott did during the filing period, covering late August through September. It also does not — because such forms typically contain only vague declarations — disclose whether and what others at the firm have done or are still doing for the bank.
Three other members of Squire Patton Boggs have worked with Breaux and Lott on the Gazprombank account, according to the disclosure. In addition to Joseph LeBaron, a former ambassador to Mauritania and Qatar during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the filing lists partners Joseph Brand, whose clients have included foreign governments and multinational corporations, and Stephen McHale, whose multiple former U.S. government positions have included serving as the first deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and Treasury’s acting general counsel during the Clinton-Bush transition, according to their biographies on Squire Patton Boggs website.
Neither Breaux, Lott or Squire Patton Boggs responded to the Center’s inquiries. Sergey Perminov of Gazprombank’s media relations office in Moscow said he could not respond by publication time.
U.S. sanctions against the bank remain in place.
Douglas Birch contributed to this report.
Super PACs must, by law, publicly reveal their donors.
Except, that is, for those that materialize during the final days of the 2014 midterm election.
Thanks to a contentious quirk in federal law, at least six new super PACs may hide their funders from public scrutiny until early December, no matter how much money they raise or spend from now until Election Day on Nov. 4.
Why? Federal campaign finance reporting regulations state that various political committees must file this week "pre-election" financial diclosures that cover activity through Oct. 15. Any political committee that forms after Oct. 15 gets a free non-disclosure pass for up to seven weeks.
Charles Philipp, a New York City media professional who created the Trucks for Cowboys Super PAC on Thursday, says he's well aware that his committee need not disclose its funders until after Thanksgiving.
That's part of the point of forming what Philipp described as a "farcical" super PAC that's "a way for me to make fun of the system."
Philipp explained his super PAC will support candidates who, as its name suggests, support cowboys driving trucks over, say, electric vehicles.
"I'm creating this in the vein of a single-issue super PAC that a special interest may create," Philipp said.
He added, however, that his fundraising efforts are sincere, and that he'll potentially spend money during the 2014 election if he can raise it.
Their chairmen, respectively, are Abner Bonilla, a New Jersey-based political consultant at firm Arkady— clients include Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. — and Daniel J. McCarthy, a Cranford, New Jersey, lawyer with ties to Democratic politicians. The PACs share an official address — a mailbox at a UPS Store along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The creator and treasurer for both PACs is Gianni Donates of Harrison, New Jersey. Reached by phone Monday, Donates declined to comment on what the super PACs intend to do, saying he "had a meeting" and would call back. Since then, he could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, a New Jersey-based super PAC called Hip Hop United, which officially formed Oct. 16, states in its federal filing that it aims to "run advertisements for or against candidates and/or support issues relevant to the Hip Hop Community" and "use Hip Hop style mediums and entertainment functions to uplift, empower and educate citizens."
Futhermore, a South Dakota-based super PAC calling itself Many True Conservatives sprung into existence on Oct. 15, meaning that it, too, may temporarily hide any donations it receives, save for those obtained on its creation day.
As of today, none of the nascent super PACs have spent any money to advocates for or against a federal political candidate — activity that federal law does require them to report, usually within 24 hours of making such an expenditure.
That certain super PACs may hide their donors during the final weeks of a major election, when the control of Congress is at stake, is "damaging" and undermines the core of our campaign laws and our elections," said Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel who now advises election law reform group Campaign Legal Center.
The FEC, Noble said, should change its regulations and compel super PACs to reveal their donors regardless of when they form.
But Dave Mason, a former FEC chairman and current senior vice president of compliance at campaign consulting firm Aristotle, disagrees. He argues that Congress would need to pass a law requiring late-filing super PACs to disclosue donors before Election Day.
In the meantime, he notes, super PAC creators are "simply following the law" as written and doing nothing wrong.
In the home stretch of the 2014 election, a new super PAC with ties to Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., finds itself flush with “dark money,” according to a new campaign finance filing with the Federal Election Commission.
The sole donor to Prosperity for Pennsylvania is listed as nonprofit Green Orchard Inc., which gave $100,000 on Oct. 6, and has previously helped bankroll several conservative political causes.
The Prosperity for Pennsylvania super PAC itself has not yet reported spending money this election cycle.
Green Orchard itself is a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based “social welfare” nonprofit, as groups formed under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code are known.
Such nonprofit groups are not required by law to reveal their donors, even when contributing to super PACs, which must disclose their funders. A super PAC accepting money from a "dark money" nonprofit group needs only to list the nonprofit's name and address when identifying it as a donor.
Green Orchard formed in December 2012, according to state records, and it describes its mission in tax filings as supporting “economic freedoms,” “free market reforms” and “alternative educational options” by giving out money to “like-minded” organizations.
Philadelphia attorney Brian Sullivan is listed as Green Orchard’s sole director and treasurer on its 2013 tax return with the Internal Revenue Service.
When asked by the Center for Public Integrity about Green Orchard recent six-figure contribution to the Prosperity for Pennsylvania super PAC, Sullivan responded: “That’s what the people wanted to do.”
He continued, before hanging up: “That’s all I can really say. Thanks. Bye.”
During its first year of existence in 2013, Green Orchard raised nearly $3 million, nearly all of which was doled out to other groups, IRS records indicate.
The largest beneficiary of Green Orchard’s financial largess last year was the YG Network, a Virginia-based nonprofit closely aligned with former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It received $1 million.
Its second-largest contribution: $900,000 to the Virginia-based Legislative Education Action Drive, which "seeks to enhance the debate on choice in education” and whose president is libertarian-leaning real estate developer Howard Rich of New York.
The $900,000 contribution from Green Orchard amounted to nearly 80 percent of the $1.14 million raised by Legislative Education Action Drive in 2013, according to tax records.
Among other beneficiaries in 2013 of Green Orchard money:
When it formed in July, the Prosperity for Pennsylvania super PAC told the FEC that it intended to “raise funds in unlimited amounts” to advocate for or against federal candidates.
Dion, now a partner at the Virginia-based firm Revolution Agency, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dion’s firm touts work on behalf of clients such as the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, tax preparer H&R Block and the Miami Heat basketball team.
For the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, Revolution Agency said it executed a campaign that “succeeded in turning public opinion against Medicaid expansion,” a policy endorsed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott following the passage of the Democrat-backed Affordable Care Act.
Politicians are currently running for office in Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts, the most competitive of which is the state’s 6th Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach is retiring.
Pennsylvania’s governor’s race is also among the hottest in the country. Incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Tom Wolf.
The gubernatorial contest has drawn more than $43 million for television advertisements, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.
Only the governor’s races in Illinois and Florida have seen more spending on TV ads.
Neither Toomey nor Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is up for re-election in Pennsylvania this November.
Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate, state-level offices and now state ballot measures. Use these interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.
Bonnie Marsh is worried that many of her neighbors’ health problems stem from big companies farming genetically modified crops around her in Maui County, Hawaii. So she helped collect enough signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would ban growing such crops until an environmental study is done.
“We’ve come forward because we feel there’s a real threat to the health of the Earth,” said Marsh, a nurse who focuses on natural remedies. “We are done being an experimental lab.”
Marsh said her group, Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the ‘Aina, has raised about $700,000 so far for what is the first-ever citizen-initiated ballot measure in Maui County. They’ve used about $17,000 of it to buy TV ads to help get the word out. But Marsh’s group is being outraised and outspent by business-supported opposition.
Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban, a group backed by agricultural giants Monsanto and DowAgroSciences, has already spent more than $2 million — or $23.13 per registered voter in the county — on television ads arguing that the ban would kill jobs, cost the local economy millions of dollars and block crops that have been proven safe.
And more ads could be on the way — the group has not yet filed a report with the state to say how much it has raised, nor would it volunteer the information to the Center for Public Integrity.
More has been spent on television time on that measure than any other local initiative in the nation. It’s also more expensive than more than a hundred statewide measures, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.
Across the country, large companies and national advocacy groups are putting big dollars behind committees with benign-sounding names that support or oppose ballot initiatives on issues as varied as minimum wage increases in Alaska and recreational marijuana in Florida.
The committees are using that money to put their message out in expensive ads featuring family farmers, concerned doctors and smiling teachers. Voters may not readily be able to identify the patrons behind the millions of dollars in ads, but a who’s who of corporate America — soda king Coca-Cola, agriculture magnate Monsanto and malpractice insurer The Doctors Company — are among them.
Through Oct. 20, TV ad spending on ballot issues totaled roughly $119 million, including $11.3 million on local initiatives such as the one in Maui County.
Four of the five most expensive ballot initiatives feature at least one corporate patron duking it out over the airwaves, getting involved in the initiative process that was designed as a way to give voters a direct voice on public policies.
Fewer but costlier initiatives
This year voters have fewer ballot measures to decide than they did four years ago, when a comparable number of offices were up for election. In 2010, voters considered 184 statewide initiatives compared with 158 this year.
Even California voters, well acquainted with lengthy ballots, have only six measures to read through this November.
But this year already has 2010 beat in terms of TV ad spending. In 2010, ballot measure backers and opponents spent about $87 million on ads for the entire election cycle, compared with this year’s $119 million through Oct. 20.
Citizens in 26 states can gather signatures and put a proposal on the ballot that would create a new law or veto an existing one. Every state but Delaware offers voters the chance to weigh in on constitutional amendments approved by the legislature. Once the initiative is approved to go before voters, the ad deluge begins.
Ballot measure opponents and supporters use a number of tools to influence voters — door-knocking, direct mail, digital advertising and more — but television spots have the highest profile influence on such direct democracy.
“TV ads are a very effective way of getting out a message,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for more than 20 years. Advertising can be used “devastatingly well,” he added.
But those ads — and the money behind them — aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it gets people talking, he said, even if a few of them are confusing or misleading. “Increased money usually means there is more information, more awareness of ballot measures,” he added.
Corporate titans rule the airwaves
In California, competing messages about the drug-testing-for-doctors proposition are abundant on the airwaves. Recent transplant James VanBuskirk, a 34-year-old marketer for a property insurance company, says he sees one every time he watches prime-time TV.
Prop 46 tops the ballot measure spending pile in this election, with $23 million spent on thousands of ads across California.
Consumer Watchdog, a national advocacy group, teamed up with trial lawyers to back the measure. Trial lawyers stand to benefit from Prop 46 because, in addition to testing doctors for drug use, it also increases the maximum judges can award for pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. Groups backed by them spent $3.9 million so far on ads supporting the measure.
Consumer advocates and the California Nurses Association have also thrown their money behind Proposition 45, which would require insurers to receive approval for rate hikes from the California insurance commissioner, an elected regulator. The ballot committee supporting the measure has spent more than $679,000 on ads so far.
But their messages have been crowded out by those of insurers and doctors, who are spending big to oppose both measures on the airwaves — with more than $38 million spent on ads so far, about $19 million on each measure — nearly a third of the total amount spent on ballot measure ads nationwide. And there are likely many more ads to come: Groups opposing the two measures together have raised more than $100 million, according to California campaign finance records.
“It’s definitely in the upper stratosphere of California fundraising,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that produces online voter guides.
That doesn’t mean the insurance companies are necessarily going to win. In 2010, a group backed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spent almost $14 million on ads supporting a ballot measure that would require local voter approval for any new government-backed utilities. The electric company lost, even though its opponents did not buy any airtime.
Casinos versus casinos
In Colorado, casinos are waging the nation’s third-most-expensive ballot fight over the airwaves this year.
It’s casino versus casinos, according to an analysis of state campaign finance data. One Rhode Island gambling company, Twin River Casino, wants to offer slot machines, blackjack and other games at a racetrack in Aurora, Colorado. In ads, the committee backed by the company promises $100 million of new gambling revenue will be sent to an education fund every year. The ads have run more than 5,500 times, at a cost of about $6.4 million.
But already established gambling operations in Colorado that don’t want more competition have backed a group that has kept pace, spending $5.7 million on ads opposing the measure. “Amendment 68 is not about education. It’s a Rhode Island gambling scheme,” one opposition ad says.
Most Coloradans likely have no idea that casinos are backing the ads on both sides, said Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University. Colorado has clear-cut competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, he said, while ballot-measure backers are “muddying the issues.”
“It’s a difficult environment for voters to know everything about a particular ballot measure anyway, in a normal election,” Saunders said. “You have to actually do some digging or find that article on the Internet or newspaper that has that in-depth information, and that’s actually a pretty demanding task for low- and medium-information voters.”
Gambling is also on the ballot in Massachusetts, with a casino-backed group spending about $3.3 million on ads.
In total, gambling-based ballot measures are responsible for $17.5 million in ad spending nationwide.
Food industry food fight
Even soda is getting in on the political ad contests. The American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola and Pepsi, has pumped millions into a group opposing a Massachusetts ballot measure that would raise fees for beverage distributors and expand the state’s bottle deposit to cover more types of bottles. The beverage lobby-backed group has spent about $2.5 million on TV ads, while pro-initiative forces have not bought any airtime.
The California branch of the beverage-makers group has also backed a group trying to defeat a local initiative in San Francisco that would tax sugary drinks; so far the group has spent $1.8 million on ads, making the measure the second-most expensive local measure in terms of television spots, behind Maui’s initiative.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are also teaming up with other big food businesses like Monsanto and the Hershey Company in their effort to keep Oregon and Colorado from requiring labels on food that contains genetically modified organisms. Groups backed by the team of food companies have spent about $3 million on ads in each state, arguing that the measures would raise food prices and hurt farmers.
“Farming is hard enough. The last thing we need is Measure 92, a bunch of complex, costly regulations that don’t exist in any other state,” says a plaid-shirt-wearing farmer in an ad opposing the Oregon measure.
Proponents of labeling in Oregon, backed by natural food companies, have spent $2 million on television ads in the state. “I want you to be able to trust the food you feed your family,” says another plaid-shirt-wearing farmer, who favors the measure. Proponents in Colorado have not aired ads.
Corporations aren’t the only big players in state ballot measures this year. National advocacy groups are also tugging at heartstrings on the airwaves.
Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have teamed up to oppose anti-abortion measures in Tennessee and Colorado. In Tennessee, a group backed by the pair has spent about $1.3 million on TV ads against a measure that would give the legislature more leeway to regulate abortion. Proponents of the measure, backed by Tennessee Right to Life, have spent about $606,000 on ads.
In Colorado, a Planned Parenthood-backed group has spent $477,000 on the airwaves to oppose an amendment to the state constitution that would redefine “person” to include the unborn. The ads say the move would effectively ban all abortion in the state. Proponents have aired no ads.
Other initiatives attracting interest from advocacy groups include:
Attracting voters with pot and money
Marijuana is on the ballot in the District of Columbia and three states, spurring $4.5 million in ads. In Oregon, voters have watched some 1,825 ads worth more than $1 million run by supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana. That effort’s backers include the family of Peter Lewis, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate from Ohio and chairman of Progressive Insurance, who died in 2013. Another backer is the Drug Policy Alliance, an anti-drug-war nonprofit backed by liberal financier George Soros. (Soros’ Open Society Foundations are a financial supporter of the Center.)
The ads argue that legalizing the drug will allow police to focus on solving murders and finding missing children. Opponents have aired no ads so far, but a similar measure failed in Oregon in 2012. In Alaska, supporters of marijuana have aired just $8,210 worth of ads.
In Florida, opponents of a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana have spent roughly $3.2 million on ads. But the players in that fight might care less about marijuana than the governor’s race. Analysts say the marijuana legalization effort in Florida is really a tactic to get more young and left-leaning residents to turn out and vote for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Billionaire casino operator Sheldon Adelson has given $4 million to the anti-pot campaign, while the pro-pot side is backed by more than $3.8 million from the personal injury lawyer John Morgan and his firm, which hired Crist after he left office. So far, however, the marijuana advocates have only spent about $195,000 on TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data.
Ballot measures are a reliable way to motivate a party’s base. For instance, liberal groups helped get measures to raise the minimum wage on five states’ ballots this fall. Yet only Nebraska’s appears to have drawn TV ads: a paltry $79,000 worth.
“That totally makes sense,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for progressive groups and the communications director at the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America. “I wouldn't count the lack of spending on ads to be indicative that they're not incredibly useful in driving out votes."
Sroka told the Associated Press that polls show overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage, including among independents and Republicans. Liberal activists looking to motivate voters can use the minimum-wage measures as a way to get perhaps reluctant voters talking and then tell them that the Democratic nominees for office also support higher wages.
“These ballot measures are great ways to talk to voters who might not want to talk to Democrats,” Sroka said.
Money talks but does it win?
For some corporations and national advocacy groups, investments in ballot measure ads have already paid off. This summer, oil companies won an August vote after dishing out nearly $900,000 to buy about 8,000 TV spots in Alaska to keep special tax breaks. “We need to stay in the game,” said a hockey coach in an ad that likened the sport to the oil industry.
In Michigan, manufacturers almost hit the $2.8 million mark on ad spending for an August ballot measure designed to eliminate a double tax on industrial property, while also rerouting an existing tax to fund local budgets. Though observers worried the measure was too confusing for pessimistic Michigan voters, who turned down every single initiative on the ballot in 2012, the manufacturers walked away with a victory.
But for others, ad spending was for naught. In Missouri, construction companies spent about $1.2 million on TV ads but still lost an August vote that would have authorized a sales tax to fund road construction.
The bulk of the measures, though, will come before voters on Nov. 4, so a flood of advertising is on the horizon. Then the implications of voters’ decisions will begin, affecting individuals’ lives and companies’ bottom lines.
In Hawaii, approval of the Maui County GMO ban would be a blow to Monsanto, which can produce up to four crops of corn seeds a year in Hawaii’s lush environment.
The state’s seed industry, including Monsanto’s corn, has grown rapidly in recent years, and last growing season was worth $217 million, outpacing sugar cane and pineapples. The corporate-backed Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban argues that small farms and big alike would be hurt by the ballot’s ban.
“More than 600 people would lose their jobs,” the group’s spokesman, Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, said in an email. “The purpose of the TV ads is to educate voters about the flawed, costly and harmful initiative.”
Natural remedies nurse Marsh doesn’t know whether her side can beat the Monsanto-backed ads; she said fliers against the GMO ban show up in her mailbox every day. But the ban advocates have a great volunteer network, she said, and at the very least they’ll get to make themselves heard. “We’re just trying to make them be held responsible for what they’re doing,” she said.
Associated Press reporter Philip Elliott contributed.
Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.
Congratulations, North Carolina: You’ve become the year’s great state of political hate.
Tar Heels last week endured more than 10,800 U.S. Senate election-focused TV ads that featured at least some content that tarred and feathered either incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan or Republican challenger Thom Tillis.
That’s more than one negative TV ad every minute from Tuesday, Oct. 14 to Monday, Oct. 20, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from Kantar Media/CMAG, an ad tracking firm.
No other U.S. Senate race — even the bitter contests in Kentucky, Iowa and Georgia — has experienced such sustained vitriol during the 2014 election cycle.
More than a dozen different political committees, super PACs and politically active nonprofit groups contributed to North Carolina’s hostility parade, which Hagan and Tillis themselves helped marshal in conjunction with their national party committee allies.
In all, the Hagan campaign and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee combined last week to produce more than 4,300 TV ads that either overtly attacked Tillis or negatively contrasted him with Hagan, the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data indicates.
She’s even aired ads about ads: One Hagan spot slams Tillis for one of his own attack ads, with the senator saying Tillis should be “ashamed” of himself for his “outrageous” assertions about her record on military issues.
Tillas and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, aired about 2,900 anti-Hagan TV ads during the same seven days.
Among other top negative advertisers: the pro-Hagan American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ political arm (1,165 TV ads), pro-Tillis nonprofit Crossroads GPS (815), and pro-Hagan Environmental Defense Action Fund (609).
Just two-dozen of the more than 10,800 Senate race-focused TV ads that ran last week in North Carolina had a positive tone.
Since last year, North Carolina voters have been presented with more than 90,000 ads trying to influence their vote ahead of the upcoming Senate election, and it appears that number will exceed 100,000 before the Nov. 4 vote.
“People just want it to be over,” said Thomas Mills, who publishes political commentary and analysis website PoliticsNC.com. “Other than watching the World Series playoffs, I haven’t even been watching any broadcast television.”
Added Mary Klenz, advocacy chairwoman for the League of Women Voters of North Carolina: “People are fed up. They’re disgusted. They’re not happy. We have always felt pretty positive, encouraged and engaged here, and then this onslaught comes, and people are just trying to catch their breath.”
Neither the Tillis nor the Hagan campaigns responded to requests for comment — although Hagan campaign manager Preston Elliott on Wednesday emailed supporters asking for money while lamenting, “You can’t watch a football game down here without seeing an ad.”
North Carolina’s Senate race — early voting there begins today — wasn’t alone last week in its rank negativity.
In Georgia, just 5 percent of TV ads in the Senate race featuring Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn contained positive messages. Nunn’s own campaign produced far more negative ads — more than 2,300 — than Perdue or any other political committee or politically active nonprofit group.
Only 9 percent of the more than 8,300 TV ads last week in Iowa’s Senate race were positive. There, Republican Joni Ernst is locked in a bitter fight against Democrat Bruce Braley.
New Hampshire’s TV ad positivity rate last week — 28 percent — hardly seems laudable.
But consider that the week before last, 8 percent of ads featured a positive tone, with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in particular hammering Republican challenger Scott Brown on his record as a politician in Massachusetts.
For the third week in a row, with more than 800 ads, WMUR-TV 9 in New Hampshire last week led all stations nationwide in the number of Senate-focused ads aired.
Across all U.S. Senate contests last week, about 18 percent of the more than 75,000 TV ads aired contained content with a positive tone, the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG shows.
More than 60 percent are bona fide attack ads, with the remainder containing mix of positive and negative messages.
Republicans must pick up six U.S. Senate seats this election in order to win a majority.
The days of candidates dominating their own political campaigns are over.
In the most competitive U.S. Senate races this year, big-money special interests that proliferated after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision are routinely out-muscling and out-messaging the candidates themselves.
This power shift is most prominent on television, where super PACs and politically active nonprofits — both may accept unlimited contributions — routinely account for nearly one out of every two ads run in a U.S. Senate race. Most of the ads are decidedly negative, and they’ve collectively cost hundreds of millions of dollars with Election Day still 10 days away.
Wealthy liberals and conservatives alike are complicit, pumping money into these groups that, by law, may not operate “in concert or cooperation with” the candidates or parties they seek to boost.
This stands in stark contrast to the 2010 midterm election, when the GOP embraced super PACs while Democrats shunned them. Now, big-dollar liberal groups sometimes trump their conservative counterparts as both seek to support candidates who will help their preferred party win control of the U.S. Senate during the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The Democratic Party is defending more than a half-dozen seats on Republican-friendly turf. The GOP will seize power if it picks up six seats. These stakes have created a financial arms race that will almost certainly make this election historically expensive.
“Everybody wants to have one more nuke than the other guy does,” says Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics.
Democratic super PACs on top
When it comes to money, two Democratic super PACs reigned supreme through mid-October, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission Thursday.
NextGen Climate Action — a super PAC primarily funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer that aims to “prevent climate disaster and preserve American prosperity” — has raised more than $76 million since it was launched in 2013. No other super PAC has raised more.
Earning the No. 2 spot was Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, a group run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. It had raised more than $53 million as of Oct. 15, including $5.5 million from Steyer and his NextGen Climate Action super PAC.
The top three Republican super PACs, meanwhile, raised nearly $68 million combined through mid-October, according to recent FEC reports.
That includes $28 million raised by American Crossroads, a super PAC launched after the Citizens United ruling in 2010 with assistance from GOP strategist Karl Rove.
The Freedom Partners Action Fund, the super PAC backed by conservative billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and their donor network, raised more than $20 million.
And nearly $19 million was raised by the Ending Spending Action Fund, a group founded by longtime Republican donor Joe Ricketts, the former head of online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade whose family owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
Nonprofits — which aren’t required to disclose the same financial details to the FEC and may generally keep their funders’ names secret — have also played a major role during the 2014 battle for the Senate, especially on the conservative side.
Most notably, groups within the Koch brothers’ political network reportedly plan to spend as much as $290 million.
On the television airwaves, though, where voters still consume most of their political information, arms race metaphors are particularly apropos: In the 12 most-competitive U.S. Senate races, liberals and conservatives have nearly fought to a draw.
Republicans and their allies were responsible for 50 percent of the roughly 633,000 Senate-focused TV ads that have so far aired in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire and South Dakota, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.
Democrats and their allies were responsible for 48 percent. And independents — namely Greg Orman in Kansas and Larry Pressler in South Dakota — were responsible for the rest.
GOP candidates generally relied more heavily on support from super PACs and nonprofits than Democrats did.
In these 12 U.S. Senate races, about 52 percent of all Republican-aligned TV ads were sponsored by outside groups, according to Kantar Media/CMAG. Only about 37 percent of all Democratic-aligned ads were produced by such groups.
Other ads were aired by candidates, parties or parties working jointly with candidates.
The official arm of the Democratic Party focused on Senate elections — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — raised nearly $129 million through the end of September, according to federal campaign finance filings.
That was some $30 million more than the $98 million raised by its rival, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Even as many candidates also raised millions of dollars, if not tens of millions — as many incumbent senators have done — they have, nevertheless, regularly been out-spent by super PACs and politically active nonprofits that are unfettered by contribution limits.
A definitive tally of precisely how much has been raised and spent in the key U.S. Senate races this election is difficult because not all groups report numbers the same way or at the same time. Further complicating the issue, as of Friday morning, some Senate candidates’ recent contribution reports were still being processed by the government.
Nevertheless, some races stand out.
Take North Carolina, for instance, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis have raised a combined $30 million through the end of September.
Non-party, outside groups there have already reported spending about $50 million on political ads to the FEC — and millions more have been spent on issue ads that need not be reported to the nation’s top elections regulator.
Similarly in Colorado, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Cory Gardner, have raised $29 million through mid-October. Super PACs and nonprofits have so far spent more than $40 million.
The new normal
Political observers agree that the outsized role of outside groups like super PACs and politically active nonprofits has become the new normal for hotly contested elections.
“Barring any changes to the current regulations, it’s likely that outside group involvement in competitive contests is here to stay,” says political science professor Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which monitors political advertising.
Of the 90,000-plus Senate-focused TV ads that have aired in the Tar Heel State, these so-called outside groups have aired more than 51,000 TV ads, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG. That’s nearly three of every five.
And in New Hampshire, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is facing a stiff challenge from former GOP Sen. Scott Brown — and a multimillion-dollar assault from conservative groups supported by the billionaire Koch brothers and Republican strategist Rove — outside groups account for more than one of every three ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.
In all these races, super PACs and nonprofits are also combining to spend tens of millions of dollars on other kinds of communications, from radio spots and glossy mailers to Facebook ads and sponsored tweets.
David Keating, the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which favors increased deregulation in elections, sees this as a positive development.
“Whenever there’s more speech that means there’s more information for voters,” says Keating, adding that such information helps “drive” voters to the polls.
Challengers, in particular, he continued, are generally helped “when there’s more money spent informing people about the incumbent’s record.”
But Michael Malbin, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., doesn’t agree the proliferation of new groups has been a welcome change.
“Non-party groups are unaccountable,” Malbin says. “It’s better to have a system in which the voters can hold the candidates and their parties accountable for what they do.”
Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.
As we head into the final stretch before next week’s midterm elections, Americans continue to have wide-ranging views of Obamacare, but even many who have an unfavorable view of it say they would rather see Congress improve it than get rid of it.
In fact, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent tracking poll of public opinion about the law, released last Tuesday, almost two-thirds of the public would rather see their member of Congress work to make the law better than to repeal and replace it.
The big, unanswered question, though, is what to fix and how to do it.
One often-cited criticism of the law is that it requires most of us to buy health insurance. The so-called “individual mandate” is especially despised by today’s Republicans, even though that party’s policy wonks thought it up back in the 1990s.
Abolishing it, however, would be tantamount to repealing the Affordable Care Act. That’s because the individual mandate is the act’s central pillar. While almost everybody likes the part of the law that makes it unlawful for insurance companies to refuse to sell coverage to anyone who wants to buy it, that provision doesn’t work without the individual mandate, as several states found out in previous years.
Take New York as an example. When that state’s lawmakers passed legislation several years ago to require insurance companies to offer policies to every legal resident of the state, the cost of coverage went through the roof because there was no accompanying individual mandate. Many insurers fled the state because they were afraid that far more unhealthy folks than healthy ones would become their customers after the law took effect, creating what is referred to in the industry as “adverse selection.” The only way an insurance company can stay afloat in such a situation is to raise rates substantially for all its customers.
Lobbyists for the insurance industry made it clear to members of Congress that they would do whatever it took to defeat the reform bill if the “guaranteed issue” provision wasn’t coupled with an individual mandate.
Seeking to avoid all-out war with the insurers, members of Congress went along with their quite reasonable demand.
Among the things insurers don’t like about the law, however, is that it made them stop selling junk insurance. Pre-Obamacare, even the biggest companies were selling policies that had sky-high deductibles and meager benefits. Some policies didn’t even cover hospitalization.
The law now prohibits insurers from selling coverage that doesn’t pay at least 60 percent of a policyholder’s medical bills (the bronze plans on the health insurance exchanges), and sets a limit on the deductibles and total out-of-pocket expenses.
Insurers are lobbying hard behind the scenes to get lawmakers to change the law to let them sell meager policies again, and they’ve turned to Democrats in red and purple states for help.
Earlier this year, Senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Mark Begich of Alaska, both Democrats who are in tight re-election contests, introduced a bill to enable insurers to sell “copper” plans that would pay only 50 percent of policyholders’ medical expenses.
As you can imagine, the legislation almost certainly was written by insurance industry lobbyists. The industry’s top lobbyist, in fact, has been championing the idea for a long time. Last April, Karen Ignagni, who heads America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), floated the idea during a C-SPAN interview in Washington.
Just days before Ignagni made those remarks Politico published a column penned by Warner and Begich, along with their Senate colleagues Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Mary Landrieu, D-La., Joe Manchin, D-W.V. and Independent Angus King of Maine, which argued for allowing copper plans to be sold. While I’m sure the authors would never admit it, I’d be willing to bet it was written with more than a little help from their friends at AHIP.
Ignagni and the senators suggest that copper plans would be more affordable. While that might be true if you considered premiums to be the only cost of insurance, the reality is that premiums are only part of the cost. Out-of-pocket expenses also have to be factored in.
Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, thousands of people found out too late that the policies they bought because premiums were comparatively low were woefully inadequate. Many people who were enrolled in those plans were forced into bankruptcy because of the medical bills they were on the hook for after a serious illness or accident.
Health insurers would love to be able to sell policies with extremely high deductibles again because they never have to pay out much in claims.
Allowing such plans to be sold is not the way to “fix” Obamacare. It makes no more sense than repealing the individual mandate. While it would be good for insurance companies’ bottom lines, it would not be good at all for the unfortunate folks who bought those policies and then wound up in bankruptcy court because of medical bills they couldn’t pay.
Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.
A new whistleblower lawsuit accuses a California health care firm of diagnosing “false and fraudulent” medical conditions that several Medicare Advantage plans allegedly used to overcharge the federal government by $1 billion or more.
The suit was filed by Anita Silingo, a former compliance officer for Mobile Medical Examination Services, Inc., or MedXM. The Santa Ana, California-based firm sends medical professionals to the homes of Medicare Advantage members to assess their health.
Silingo claims she was fired last year after she tried to stop MedXM from exaggerating how sick these patients were, which raised government payments to the health plans. The suit, filed in August 2013 in California, was unsealed by a judge late last month.
The suit also names four Medicare Advantage insurance plans which, Silingo alleges, “turned a blind eye” to the practices. The health plans named in the suit are: Molina Healthcare of California; WellPoint, Inc., which operates Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield; Health Net of California, Inc. and Alameda Alliance for Health. None would comment.
MedXM chief executive officer Sy Zahedi called the allegations “categorically not true.” In a brief interview, Zahedi said: “I can’t comment on any litigation right now, but anybody is free to file a lawsuit.” He said the company was “just served (with the suit) a week ago. It is brand new to us. We look forward to our day in court.”
Whether her claims hold up in court or not, Silingo’s lawsuit is likely to draw further attention to government oversight of Medicare Advantage plans. The health plans, an alternative to standard Medicare, are mostly run by private insurance companies. They serve more than 15 million Americans, or about one in three elderly and disabled people on Medicare, at a cost to taxpayers that could reach $160 billion this year. The plans are paid based on a “risk score,” which estimates how sick patients are. Medicare pays higher rates for sicker patients.
Critics argue that federal officials waste billions of tax dollars every year by failing to crack down on health plans that game the arcane payment system. At least five other whistleblower cases accusing Medicare Advantage of fraudulently inflating risk scores are winding through federal courts, records show.
Silingo worked at MedXM from August of 2011 to June of 2013. Under federal Medicare regulations, a compliance officer’s job is to make sure that regulations are followed and any violations are corrected.
Silingo says she was fired after alerting her bosses to problems ranging from doctors who did implausibly large numbers of evaluations in a day to inaccurate blood tests that she said skewed diagnostic results.
“She noticed these types of things and complained to upper management, but they blew her off,” said her attorney, William K. Hanagami. He declined to make Silingo available for an interview.
Silingo cites problems with in-home health visits to Medicare Advantage patients in Ohio, New York, California, Texas, Oregon and Virginia.
The four health plans “turned a blind eye to the truth” because the MedXM health assessments made them money, according to the suit.Medicare Advantage plans argue that the in-home health assessments can help members stay fit and in their homes as long as possible by spotting untreated diseases and dangerous living conditions. While the doctors and nurses don’t offer any treatment during their visit, they report their exam findings to the patient’s primary care physician.
But home visits also are controversial, largely due to their impact on Medicare costs.
In June, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that home visits were flourishing as federal officials struggled to prevent Medicare Advantage plans from overcharging the government by billions of dollars every year. Medicare made nearly $70 billion in “improper” payments to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 through 2013, mostly overbillings based on inflated risk scores, according to the government’s own estimates.
Federal officials last year said they were concerned that some health plans may be turning to home visits and other strategies that drive up risk scores — and Medicare costs — without offering patients more actual medical services or tangible health benefits.
In April, though, officials bowed to industry pressure and backed off an earlier proposal to restrict the home visits, which the industry estimated would have cut their Medicare payments by nearly $3 billion a year.
In her lawsuit, Silingo cites a range of problems with how the visits were conducted.
The lawsuit names nearly 70 nurse practitioners and physician assistants whom she claims were not properly supervised by doctors. Some evaluations were conducted over the phone rather than in person, as required by federal regulations. In other cases, Silingo alleged, medical coders directed the health professionals to “modify” medical records “in order to increase the severity of the patients’ diagnosis.”
In some instances, doctors or other medical professionals didn’t arrive at patients’ homes with diagnostic gear such as a portable EKG or X-ray machine that would be needed to confirm some of the diagnoses later reported to the health plans, according to the suit.
Patients were not required to remove clothing which prevented doctors from accurately assessing a number of medical conditions, such as heart disease and serious lung disease, according to the suit.
These “false and improperly confirmed” diagnoses inflated the enrollees’ risk scores, resulting in higher government payments, the suit alleged.
Some doctors and nurses were scheduling 20 to 25 of the home visits per day. The suit names three doctors whom it says scheduled at least 20 of the visits in a single day. Doctors were paid on average $100 for each exam.
“Such a high volume of daily in-home face-to-face assessments could not have occurred because of the time required to travel from one patient’s home to the next,” according to the suit.
In some cases blood work collected from patients was “spoiled” because it was not submitted to labs for analysis quickly enough, rendering results “unreliable,” according to the suit.
In December of 2012 about 750 Molina patients had “identical vital statistics for age, weight, sex height, blood pressure and heart rate” as well as similar medical findings, all done by the same doctor.
That doctor was “routinely” completing more than 22-25 assessments per day “traveling over a wide geographic area making it implausible that he actually performed the work that he claimed,” according to the suit.
Each of the health plans that contracted with MedXM was required to monitor its performance, but failed to do so adequately, according to the suit, which argues that the government was “damaged in excess of $1 billion.”
Zahedi, the MedEX chief executive, said that his firm is “one of the smaller ones” that conducts in-home risk assessment reviews for Medicare Advantage plans.
While he declined to discuss the state of the industry, he said: “We’ll have tons to say once we get our day in court.”
As the national debate over childhood inequities sharpens, recent developments in California highlight struggles over practices critics say deprive some kids of quality class time and fuel a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
New state legislation on discipline and truancy—along with lawsuits—are at the heart of these controversies in the Golden State.
This month, for instance, a judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring that state education officials intervene immediately at a school where students have joined a class-action lawsuit originally filed in May; students at the school, Jefferson High in lower-income south Los Angeles, allege that they’ve been deprived of equal time for education in comparison to kids at other more affluent schools. More than 90 percent of students at Jefferson High are Latino, many the children of immigrants, and more than 8 percent of students are black.
The Oct. 8 order by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Hernandez, Jr., required state officials to immediately ensure Jefferson kids are not placed in classes this fall that they’ve already taken and passed or assigned periods dubbed “home” or “service” periods that are “devoid” of academic instruction. State officials say they’re complying with the order.
The class-action suit over “lost learning time” was filed in May on behalf of kids at nine California schools, including two in Alameda County, as the Center for Public Integrity reported. Kids at Jefferson in L.A. joined the suit in early October.
Students at various schools in the suit complained they were denied classes they needed to either graduate or apply to college, and suffered from poor instruction due to frequent teacher turnover and chaos in scheduling. The litigation was filed by Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, which has also represented students in expulsions, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and other law groups.
Policy makers and businesses in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in California also argue for more action to close an “achievement gap” and boost access to college prep classes for Latino and black students.
In a request this fall for immediate intervention, Jefferson student Jason Magaña, who aspires to be an aeronautical engineer, said in a Sept. 14, 2014, declaration to court that he was scheduled this fall for a graphics design class he had already taken and passed twice. He was also placed in an overcrowded AP English class of 50 kids. In addition, he was moved to an economics class he needs to graduate but had to struggle to catch up because he entered four weeks late.
The student also said was given two “home” periods he didn’t request this semester and a schedule that had him done with school by 11:20 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.
In an interesting twist, on Oct. 2, recently resigned L.A. Unified School District superintendent John Deasy provided a scathing court declaration in support of the restraining order request. He called the assignment of kids to these “service” or home periods “indefensible” and a violation of students’ fundamental right to education.
“These ‘classes’ are not designed to deliver real instruction…but rather are no more than fillers designed to plug gaps where no genuine courses are readily available,” Deasy said. He said he thought the restraining order should be placed on every school in the L.A. district that assigns kids to these periods.
North of Los Angeles, in California’s farming and oil-drilling Central Valley, another lawsuit filed this month also raises issues of inequitable school treatment heavily affecting black and Latino students.
As the Center for Public Integrity recently reported, the lawsuit in Kern was filed on behalf of Latino and black students who were removed from regular campuses and placed in alternative schools with fewer and inferior academic classes or extracurricular activities. The suit was filed by a number of California and national law groups.
The Center in 2013 investigated how Mexican-American farmworker kids who were removed from regular schools were limited to alternative campuses so far from their homes they either dropped out or were put on independent “home” study with only one half day a week of actual time with a teacher. The Kern High School District, which is named in the suit filed Oct. 9, has declined to comment.
Kern officials have told the Center in the past that they are taking steps to spread the use of alternative discipline rather than removal of kids.
The L.A. and Kern lawsuits are pending. But California schools are also facing changes approved by state legislators this year and taking effect in January.
One of those measures prohibits the jailing of “contemptuous habitual truants” as a way to force kids into regular attendance. Truancy is not a crime. But kids in some California counties—most had abandoned the practice—were getting locked up once judges found them to be in contempt of court orders to attend classes regularly.
At least 14 states already prohibit jailing of truants or other kids who have committed “status offenses,” which are infractions only minors can commit, like truancy, running away or smoking. Truants in California can still face consequences –including fines and community service—and their parents can be jailed for allowing kids to be truant.
According to records provided by the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, Kern County courts in 2013 imposed “two weekends” in juvenile hall on 39 mostly Latino truants. Some were also ordered to write essays, pay fines or had driver’s licenses suspended.
The same year, more populous Alameda County locked up 13 minors for truancy; Orange County locked up truants 41 times; and San Diego locked up 41, some for up to four days.
In April, a video a student in Kern shot at the North High School sparked a community discussion over tough tactics used to try to scare struggling students who miss too much school or have failing grades.
The video—provided to TV stations--revealed a school truancy officer shaming 34 students at a public assembly by calling out their names, disclosing that they would probably not graduate and ordering them to stand up and walk out of the assembly.
The Kern High School District apologized to the students and spokesman John Teves told local News17 TV: “It’s not standard practice to abuse students verbally this way.” He said the truancy officer was not authorized to single out the students, calling out their names into a microphone in front of peers.
On Sept. 24, local TV cameras also filmed Kern High School District school police and other law enforcement conducting a “sweep” to look for more than 80 truants. Officers went house to house and eight students were reportedly given court citations and taken into school, where officers were shown lecturing kids, who were shown from the back or side.
Kern High School District Police Chief Mike Collier told local reporters, “The best place for kids to be in terms of their safety, their welfare and their future is in school.”
Last April, before Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed the anti-jailing bill, local TV filmed a similar Kern sweep that resulted in minors being handcuffed and led into juvenile hall.
Sue Burrell, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, which supported the anti-jailing bill, said she was troubled by the video of the September sweep even though kids were taken into school rather than jail.
“The COPS-like show of force still seems like the wrong way to approach what is often a complex set of underlying issues,” she said. Often, Burrell said, kids who are truant are struggling privately with learning disabilities or bullying, family problems, including substance abuse or neglect in the home, or responsibilities to work or care for other siblings.
Research has shown that even one time in lockup increases a kid’s risk of involvement with the adult criminal justice system by 50 percent.
Another new policy that California legislators approved and that goes into effect in January prohibits suspensions of the Golden State’s youngest students for a broad category of misbehavior called “willful defiance.”
Legislators gave the bill a three-year life to allow for evaluation after that time lapses. As another compromise, the new discipline policy applies only to children who are in kindergarten through third grade. It is the nation’s first such statewide prohibition. Some school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, have already barred “willful defiance” suspensions and expulsions for students of all grade levels.
Several years in the making, the suspensions bill stemmed from complaints that suspensions of one day to several days at a time were spiraling out of control in California; in a “zero-tolerance” climate in some districts, kids were being removed for an array of accusations, including talking back, dress code violations and failing to do homework or failing to have school supplies.
Data also showed at-home suspensions have been disproportionately imposed on black and Latino kids, raising questions about whether certain kids are treated more harshly for perceived misbehavior. Moreover, critics—including law enforcement officials—pointed to research that suspensions put kids behind academically, further alienate them from school, and also increase their risk of getting into trouble and dropping out.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The most mysterious force in Kentucky’s pivotal U.S. Senate race is a ghost that dwells in a hole in a wall.
Hunt for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, and one finds no grassroots army, no canvassing operation, no office or headquarters at all — just a scuffed U.S. Postal Service box nestled inside a suburban shopping plaza about 10 miles from downtown Louisville.
About the only thing nearby that smacks of politics is an adjacent pop-up Halloween costume store. There, among monsters, ghouls and evil clowns, a vinyl President Barack Obama mask sells for $24.99 — the “scariest one of them all,” one shopper mused.
Corporeal or not, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has nevertheless capitalized on such anti-Obama sentiment, and the freedom to largely operate with anonymity, to haunt Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in her increasingly unlikely bid to unseat incumbent Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
About one in every seven of TV ads in Kentucky’s Senate race — about 12,000 of the more than 79,000 ads that have aired through Monday — has been sponsored by Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which operates as a “social welfare” nonprofit organization that, by law, is prohibited from making the influencing of elections its primary purpose.
Only the McConnell and Grimes campaigns themselves have aired more TV ads during what’s become one of the nation’s most contentious — and most costly — electoral battles, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking company.
No other group has had a larger footprint in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race. In fact, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has aired about twice as many TV ads than the next most prolific player in the contest, a pro-Grimes super PAC called Senate Majority PAC, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has aired more spots than all other pro-McConnell groups combined.
Despite having effectively no physical presence, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition now ranks among the largest social welfare nonprofits in Kentucky — bringing in more money, according to Internal Revenue Service records, than some of Kentucky’s more high-profile nonprofits, such as the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Derby Festival, the group behind two weeks’ worth of events surrounding the Kentucky Derby.
Thank, in part, the loosened rules on corporate electioneering following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision for Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s unexpected rise. Certain types of donor-shielding nonprofit corporations may now raise unlimited funds to advocate for and against federal political candidates, not only in Kentucky, but in any race.
More acutely, though, thank a development akin to a corporate takeover for the group’s sudden prominence — the addition, last year, of a former top McConnell aide who previously worked in the White House with Republican strategist Karl Rove. Until then, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition didn't do much of anything.
That man: Scott Jennings.
McConnell’s mystery millions
Jennings served as the White House deputy political director in the George W. Bush administration and is a veteran of McConnell’s last two re-election campaigns.
Now a Louisville-based public relations consultant, Jennings served as a “senior communications advisor” to McConnell’s re-election campaign in 2008. Six years earlier, he worked as the McConnell campaign’s “political and communications director.” His skills have also been honed working for the GOP presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
Jennings, a co-founder of the media relations firm RunSwitch PR, said he was hired by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s board of directors to “help ensure the organization’s message is dispersed in an efficient and effective manner.”
He stressed to the Center for Public Integrity that the nonprofit “abides by all rules and regulations governing an organization of its kind.”
He continued: “The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition seeks to bring about long-term positive change with fewer additional regulatory burdens and taxes. Its activities are all geared toward that mission.”
With Jennings’ assistance, the group, he said, has spent $14 million since the beginning of 2013 — nearly as much money as Grimes has raised — though Jennings is quick to assert that “much of the advertising was of an issue nature and has no connection to any election.”
But records show the group has reported more than $7.1 million to the FEC for expenditures that “expressly advocate” for election of McConnell or defeat of Grimes.
Issue ads that praise or criticize a politician but fall short of overtly urging people to vote for or against them do not generally need to be reported to the FEC.
Policy of non-disclosure
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition appears well aware that its potential donors may want to contribute for political reasons.
For example, its website for months promoted the fact that donations to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition did not count against the $123,000 aggregate limit on federal political contributions — a limit that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in April.
Furthermore, every one of the 12,000-plus TV ads aired by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition mentions either McConnell or Grimes, as does every video on the group’s YouTube page.
Many of these ads have praised McConnell, a five-term incumbent, for being "Kentucky coal's chief proponent in our nation's capital" and for “fighting to protect Kentucky jobs from Obama's war on coal."
Others have castigated Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of State and daughter of former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, as "a liberal who is wrong for Kentucky" and a "rubber stamp” for Obama’s political agenda.
Overall, about 53 percent of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s TV ads have praised McConnell while the rest have attacked Grimes, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.
Jennings told the Center for Public Integrity that these ads have had a “tremendous impact shaping the public policy environment” and that his group was “grateful” to have had “the resources to educate Kentuckians on a range of issues.”
He declined to say who was bankrolling this advertising spree. The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s policy is to “not provide the names of its donors to the general public,” its website states.
Campaign finance reformers say the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is the epitome of “dark money” nonprofit groups that have little or nothing to do with promoting social welfare, as their IRS designation would suggest.
“This group for all practical purposes is simply an arm of Sen. McConnell’s campaign,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Democracy 21.
“This group exists to allow donors to give secret money to benefit Sen. McConnell’s campaign without the public knowing who these people are,” he added.
The FEC tried in August to compel Kentucky Opportunity Coalition to release more information about its donors when filing mandatory expenditure reports.
The group, in response, effectively told the government’s top election regulator to take a hike.
“Kentucky Opportunity Coalition understands the applicable reporting regulations,” group treasurer Caleb Crosby wrote. “The omission of contributor information on future reports should not be assumed to be an oversight.”
The FEC has held that social welfare nonprofits like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which are organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the tax code, need only disclose the names of donors who give with the stated intent of “furthering” a specific ad or expenditure.
Notably, Crosby also serves as the treasurer for a number of other politically active groups, including American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the super PAC and nonprofit co-founded by GOP strategist Rove after the Citizens United decision.
The Citizens United ruling loosened campaign finance restrictions on corporations, including certain classes of nonprofits, which previously could not call directly for the election or defeat of federal politicians. They may now also raise unlimited amounts of money to fund such overt political messages.
Both Crosby and Jennings are also involved with a pro-McConnell super PAC known as Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which raised $7.5 million between its formation in March 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014, according to campaign finance filings. Super PACs, unlike politically active nonprofits, must disclose their donors to the FEC in regular filings.
Many of the donors to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership have also donated to American Crossroads, including investor John W. Childs, a pioneer of the leveraged buyout, and Joe Craft, the president and chief executive officer of Alliance Resource Partners, a Tulsa-based coal giant.
Neither Childs nor Craft responded to requests for comment about whether they donated money to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.
‘They understand the game’
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has earned accolades from some local Republicans for its increased profile and involvement in Kentucky’s white-hot U.S. Senate race.
“They understand the game that has to be played in order to win,” said Nathan Haney, the chairman of the Louisville-based Jefferson County Republican Party. “And they’ve done a great job.”
Haney added that he had “no idea” where the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition was getting its money, but, he continued, “I’m assuming that they have a nationwide network because they are all very well-connected people.”
For its part, the McConnell campaign repeatedly dodged opportunities to discuss the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.
At one campaign event in the northern Kentucky city of Hebron, McConnell himself was whisked away by staffers when this reporter introduced himself. And McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Only after the mid-October debate between McConnell and Grimes in Lexington did McConnell campaign senior adviser Josh Holmes offer a curt response about the role of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition in the race.
When asked by the Center for Public Integrity how the senator would be faring without the group’s ad blitz, Holmes said, “We’d be winning just like we are right now.”
Most recent polls have shown McConnell with a narrow lead.
Despite these financial disadvantages, Grimes has kept the contest fairly close.
Meteoric rise from humble beginnings
When it was launched in 2008, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition offered no indication it would morph into one of the most prominent players in the fight for Republican control of the U.S. Senate.
When it applied for tax-exempt status as a social welfare nonprofit, the group told the IRS that it did not have any plans to spend any money “attempting to influence” the election of any political candidates.
It added that it would be “operated exclusively for public and social welfare purposes.”
And it further stated that it hoped to raise nearly $2 million during its first few years of existence from “individuals and corporations.”
Large donors would receive “invitations to policy conferences, dinners and premier events and “preferred seating and reception access” at Kentucky Opportunity Coalition events.
That funding, however, never materialized.
Between its formation in 2008 and the end of 2012, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition never reported more than $50,000 in annual receipts, according to tax records. Press releases show it briefly advocated against a prevailing wage for education projects in 2009 before falling off the radar.
“The organization really did not have a tremendous amount of legs in its early years,” said David Mast, a lobbyist who served on its board of directors when it first launched.
But its current officers aren’t eager to talk about the group’s sudden rise.
Mum’s the word
Three Republican women — Kristen Webb, Bridget Bush and Karen Sellers — compose the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s current board of directors.
All have been involved with the organization since its founding, according to records.
Webb, the group’s chairwoman, is a Louisville-based attorney who previously worked in state government.
During the 2000s, she worked for Kentucky’s Finance and Administration Cabinet, which is the primary support agency for state government. She also served on Kentucky’s Registry of Election Finance, the state’s election and campaign finance regulator.
Bush, too, is a Louisville-based attorney.
In 2012, Bush was the lead counsel associated with the amicus brief of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in the legal fight over the constitutionality of the individual mandate in Obama’s health care reform law.
She was a founding member of the Louisville lawyer’s chapter of the Federalist Society, of which her husband, attorney John K. Bush, is the president. Her favorite books, according to her profile on a blogging website, include the Bible and Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged."
Sellers, meanwhile, is the assistant to the president and CEO of the Highlands Regional Medical Center in Prestonsburg, in eastern Kentucky. She also chairs the board of directors of the Big Sandy Technical and Community College in Prestonsburg.
None responded to requests for comment. After phone calls and emails went unanswered, the Center for Public Integrity also attempted to contact Webb and Bush at their homes in Louisville.
John Bush, returning from walking the family’s dogs, said that his wife was “unavailable.”
No one answered the door at Webb’s stately, two-story brick home — a handsome structure that Jefferson County values at $767,500.
Jennings, the public relations consultant who serves as the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s spokesman, declined to comment on their behalf.
“I believe you have been trying to contact our board members,” he wrote in an email to the Center for Public Integrity. “I will be the only person commenting for the group.”
Up for sale?
On the campaign trail, Grimes has slammed McConnell as “Mr. Citizens United” and has criticized the “millionaires and billionaires” who are trying to help “buy Mitch McConnell’s way back to Washington.”
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in the northern Kentucky city of Florence in mid-October, Grimes reminded her supporters that the “hearts and minds of Kentuckians” cannot be bought — even if the airwaves can.
McConnell and his allies have aired nearly three TV ads for every two from Grimes and her allies over the course of the campaign, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG covering spending through Oct. 27, though in recent weeks that gap has narrowed.
Since the start of September, McConnell and his supporters have aired about 20,800 ads compared to the approximately 17,400 aired by Grimes and groups backing her. That’s about one TV ad every four minutes for Team Mitch versus about one every five minutes for Team Alison.
Super PACs have aided both candidates, but Grimes has less dark money support than McConnell.
Liberal-aligned nonprofits such as the Vote Vets Action Fund and Patriot Majority USA have made modest ad buys on Grimes’ behalf, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS have both joined the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition on the air in support of McConnell’s re-election bid.
When asked by the Center for Public Integrity about the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, Grimes remarked that the group’s initials are just “one letter shy of Koch brothers” — a swipe at conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose political network has spent millions of dollars aiding GOP politicians across the country this year.
In the home stretch of the campaign, she’s resolute in the face of whatever dark money the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spends against her.
“This election won’t be bought,” Grimes said. “Our democracy isn’t up for sale.”
The Center for Public Integrity was honored today with four 2014 EPPY awards from Editor & Publisher. The winning entries, and the categories:
For the best Investigative/Enterprise Feature, Big Oil, Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas, the Center partnered with InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. The immersive digital experience of the investigation, produced by Center Engagement Editor Sarah Whitmire via the Shorthand application, used elegant prose, photos, video, and infographics to truly convey the breadth of what residents of the Eagle Ford Shale region in South Texas experience in their own backyards. The area is in the midst of an oil and gas drilling boom, and the investigation raised questions regarding the health risks of emissions of dangerous chemicals in the area, and the lack of oversight by state regulators.
The Center’s award-winning online infographic, China Leaks: Who Uses Offshore Tax Havens, was developed — in six different languages — by News Developer Chris Zubak-Skees. His work deftly illustrated exactly who among China’s elite had connections to offshore companies, and why those people mattered. The series was part of the larger series Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a project of the Center. The effort represented one of the largest journalistic collaborations in the world, involving more than 110 journalists in 58 countries.
Consider the Source and Primary Source were recognized for their comprehensive coverage of the rapidly changing world of money in politics. The 2014 elections are the most expensive and least transparent midterm campaigns of the modern era, and these projects have illuminated the shadowy political organizations flourishing in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
Read more about the 2014 Eppy Awards winners at Editor & Publisher.
Congratulations to all of the winners.
Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.
After this year’s U.S. Senate races are run and done, the notoriously nasty contests will likely limp into history with this distinction: Candidates, political groups and nonprofits will have combined to air — cue Austin Powers nemesis Dr. Evil— one million television ads.
Through Monday, about 908,000 U.S. Senate-focused TV ads have aired this election cycle, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of preliminary data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking firm.
With a week’s worth of advertising yet to be tallied, to say nothing of the deluge of messaging that would flood anticipated Senate runoff contests in Georgia and Louisiana, the million-ad mark will be eclipsed soon.
Last week alone, candidates, party committees, super PACs, nonprofit groups and others together produced 83,000 U.S. Senate-focused ads — more than any other single week during the 2014 election cycle.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee and pro-Democrat super PAC Senate Majority PAC were tops among about 110 U.S. Senate-related ad sponsors.
Most of the ads contained highly negative content as Republicans are fighting to capture six seats needed to win control of the U.S. Senate.
North Carolina’s race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis, her Republican rival, drew more ads last week than any other contest — about 11,000 from Oct. 21 to Oct. 27.
That’s more than one ad per minute, on average.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, where Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst are battling for an open seat in the wake of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement, voters saw about one U.S. Senate-focused ad a minute.
That illustrates a massive change in the dynamics of Kansas’ race. During the week after Labor Day, for example, Kansas TV viewers only saw, on average, one U.S. Senate-focused ad every 22 minutes.
In Kansas, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is being challenged by independently wealthy independent Greg Orman — the Democratic candidate dropped out of the race in early September — and the state’s U.S. Senate race has unexpectedly turned into a dead head.
Conversely, in Michigan, TV viewers have recently received more of a reprieve. There, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters is running against Republican Terri Lynn Land for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.
In early and mid-September, Michigan’s U.S. Senate race ranked among the hottest in the country, attracting nearly one TV ad every two minutes at its height. But last week, the contest saw only about 2,000 TV ads — about one spot every five minutes.
Twelve other U.S. Senate races drew more ads last week. Recent polls have shown Peters with a solid lead, which may largely explain the TV ad decline.
While the tone of last week’s U.S. Senate ads remain, on balance, overwhelmingly negative, a few of the most spite-filled states found themselves filled with slightly less bane.
Notable among them: North Carolina, the most negative U.S. Senate race in the nation for mid-October.
The week before last, the Tar Heel State played host to more than 10,800 U.S. Senate-focused ads — and all but two-dozen of them contained at least some negative content, attacking either Hagan or Tillis.
But last week, about 530 of North Carolina’s more than 11,000 U.S. Senate-focused TV ads — a whole 5 percent — curbed the negativity for messages that strictly promoted one of the candidates.
So, how ugly is North Carolina’s political discourse these days?
Ugly enough that an exasperated child at Vance Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, wrote a letter to Hagan and Tillis asking them, in the name of respect and civility, to chill the heck out.
“All I hear in your ads are you saying mean things about each other,” student Carson Park wrote. “Will you act like this after the election? Seeing the ads on TV makes me sad and I don’t want to vote.”
But one class of people — broadcasters — is enjoying the advertising boom.
KUSA-TV 9 in Denver, where more than 900 U.S. Senate-related ads ran last week, attracted more than any other station in the country.
It’s followed by KMGH-TV in Denver; WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines, Iowa; WSOC-TV 9 in Charlotte, North Carolina; KAKE-TV 10 in Wichita, Kansas; and KSNW-TV 3, also in Wichita, according to the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.
For the first time in three weeks, WMUR-TV 9 in New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is locked in a close race against Republican Scott Brown, didn’t air the most U.S. Senate-related TV ads during a one-week period.
At least 29 donors have given $1 million or more to state-level campaigns so far this election, with a dozen of the big givers made up of self-funding candidates, according to an analysis of campaign finance data.
The other big donors to state campaigns in the 2014 election include billionaires, corporate giants, unions and nonprofit political groups. Each donor has shelled out more than 19 times the country’s median household income.
The analysis is preliminary — the totals will only go up as more contribution reports are filed in the states. In addition, the National Institute is still processing reports that have already come in. Less than 80 percent of those reports have been processed thus far this election cycle. Rauner(*) alone, for example, has given at least $12 million more for a total of $26 million, state records show.
Despite those limitations, the Center still identified at least 29 of these million-dollar donors who have given more than $84 million out of the more than $1 billion in the two-year, 2014 election cycle. The Center looked at reports processed by the National Institute through Oct. 29.
While the race for U.S. Senate has grabbed most of the national election headlines this year, much of the action is at the state level. Thirty-six governorships are on the ballot in addition to more than 200 other statewide races and thousands of statehouse contests.
And unlike at the federal level, some states allow unlimited contributions to candidates. In addition, several states also allow direct contributions from the treasuries of corporations and unions.
Seeding their own chances
Rauner, Wolf and Jones are just three of at least 12 candidates for state-level office who have poured at least $1 million into their own campaigns.
States can limit contributions to candidates, but there are no such limitations on how much a candidate can give to his or her own campaign. That gives wealthy individuals with political aspirations an advantage over less wealthy opponents, said Bill Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University.
“If an individual wants to run for public office, and they can be self-financed and the parties view them as reasonable candidates,” Rosenberg said, “a lot of times the party will just step out of the way because they can take those financial resources and put them into other races.”
In the case of Rauner, his early contributions to his campaign may have helped him attract even more cash to his joint campaign with running mate Evelyn Sanguinetti, including at least $4.5 million from Griffin and $7 million from the Republican Governors Association.
“The millions reassured prospective donors that the Republican Party wasn’t going to have a flash in the pan here, that he was going to be in until the end, that he wasn’t going to get outspent,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.
Limitations on influence
But other donors who give directly to candidates often face strict limits.
In 21 states, corporations cannot give money to candidates’ campaigns, and 16 states ban unions from giving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Unions and corporations can give through their political action committees, though contributions may be limited.)
Thirty-eight states cap the amount a person or group can give to a single candidate.
And until recently, donors in more than a dozen states were limited in how much money they could give overall in an election cycle. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits at the federal level in April, with its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. States such as Connecticut and Wisconsin have pledged to not enforce the limits in state elections this year.
It’s not yet clear how far-reaching the impact of the decision may be on this election. Still, the existing contribution limits largely shape the way money pours into elections.
The two states seeing the highest number of donations to candidates from the mega-donors so far are Texas, where individuals and political action committees can give candidates as much as they want, and Illinois, whose governor’s race allows unlimited contributions this cycle.
Six-figure donations are the norm in marquee races in Texas.
This cycle, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican running for governor, received at least $900,000 from Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who died in December 2013. Energy tycoon Kelcy Warren has given Abbott at least $450,000, while telecommunications executive Kenny Troutt along with his wife, Lisa, has given him at least $350,000.
Such large-scale giving does not carry a stigma in Texas of trying to buy access, according to Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. Instead, he said, it is “simply par for the course” in the Lone Star State.
“Large donations have little to no political blowback,” Jones said.
Under Illinois rules, if a candidate for statewide office contributes more than $250,000 to his or her own campaign, or if an outside group spends that amount supporting a candidate in the race, caps for contributions to a single candidate are thrown out in that race.
At first Rauner, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, avoided giving his opponent the chance for limitless fundraising by injecting $249,000, just below the threshold, into his campaign in March 2013.
But before the end of that year, Rauner gave his campaign another $1 million, pulling the plug on caps in the race. By now, the Republican nominee has contributed more than $26 million of his own money to his campaign, according to Illinois campaign finance records.
Rauner’s campaign did not respond to the Center’s request for comment.
His self-funding also cleared the path for incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn and his running mate to accept more than $3.6 million from the Democratic Governors Association, more than $755,000 from Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner and millions from unions, including more than $1.2 million from a branch of the Service Employees International Union.
Getting around the limits
Even in states with contribution restrictions, well-heeled donors have found ways to give generously — and legally — to the candidates they favor.
In Pennsylvania, for example, corporations and unions can’t give directly to candidates, but they can give unlimited amounts of money if they establish a political action committee in the organization’s name. That’s how the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a state teachers union, gave $500,000 to Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign.
In New York, wealthy individuals can donate through multiple limited liability corporations to dodge the state’s $60,800 per cycle contribution limit for such businesses. Real estate magnate Leonard Litwin, for example, has given at least $1 million to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo using this method, according to a recent report by the New York Public Interest Research Group. The original sources of such contributions, though, are not reflected in the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ data.
A representative for Litwin did not respond to requests for comment.
Sometimes the best way around the rules is to avoid them altogether by giving to independent groups instead of candidate campaigns. Thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and subsequent rulings, there is no limit to what a person, corporation or union can give to independently acting political organizations.
The tactic is widespread this election. Roughly a fifth of the television ads airing in state-level races this cycle were paid for by groups that operate independently from candidates’ official campaigns, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
But many donors this cycle have given directly to candidates and helped fund outside political efforts beyond state-level races.
Eychaner, for example, may not make a list of million-dollar donors to candidates for state-level office this election. He has so far given at least $755,000 to Quinn in Illinois. But he has also given about $8 million to federal super PACs this year, according to the Federal Election Commission. In 2012, he was the largest Democratic donor to independent spending groups, having given $14 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A representative for Eychaner declined to comment.
On the other side, Griffin was one of the five largest donors to the Washington, D.C.-based Republican Governors Association in the first nine months of this year, according to the group’s latest tax filing.
A representative for Griffin declined to comment.
Why do they give?
For individual donors, there are several likely reasons why they may give to candidates’ campaigns, said Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt.
For some, political ideology is a motivating factor, Levitt said. For others, large contributions are a way for donors to thrust themselves into the public consciousness. Still others are looking to gain favor with the people who could end up regulating their business interests. Sometimes, it’s a combination of the three.
Though some corporations are ideologically motivated, most businesses’ political donations are effectively “bet hedging,” he said.
Cable television giant Comcast Corp. parceled out at least $1.2 million in donations to candidates for state-level office in 36 states, often with as little as $100 given to the campaign of a legislative candidate.
“We believe that it’s important to be involved in the political process,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice. “There are probably thousands of bills and regulatory state actions every year that affect the company.”
Fitzmaurice said the company tends to give across party lines and mostly to incumbents.
The company gave to Democrats in 28 states, Republicans in 31 states and at least one independent in Alabama, the Center’s analysis shows.
Where the company directs its political donations could depend on factors such as whether an election could shift party control of a state legislature or whether a state is considering regulatory action, Fitzmaurice said.
“For a corporation, making a donation may well be laying a bed of good will for legislators or regulators down the line, either to prevent unfavorable legislation or to try and get favorable legislation,” Levitt said. “It’s not uncommon at all for legislators, at least, to do a mental check of whether they’ve received a contribution before they decide exactly how badly they want to schedule a particular meeting.”
Liz Essley Whyte contributed to this report.