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- 11/08/15--21:17: _How does your state...
- 11/12/15--08:26: _Only three states s...
- 11/11/15--17:50: _FEC: Notable conser...
- 11/11/15--17:51: _Super PAC aims to f...
- 11/13/15--13:59: _The fuel for a nucl...
- 11/17/15--11:05: _New tax documents s...
- 11/17/15--13:21: _Drug lobby gave $50...
- 11/19/15--12:11: _Congressman-auto de...
- 11/18/15--17:08: _Secret donors fuel ...
- 11/19/15--02:00: _Outside groups try ...
- 11/20/15--02:00: _GOP governors take ...
- 11/20/15--19:59: _Liberal 'dark money...
- 11/20/15--15:09: _Mysterious pro-Mitc...
- 11/23/15--14:02: _Watchdog asks for c...
- 11/24/15--09:44: _Auto-dealing congre...
- 12/01/15--05:56: _Former New York Ass...
- 12/01/15--12:52: _EPA begins 'wholesa...
- 12/03/15--06:54: _Where do ads shapin...
- 12/03/15--02:00: _Government has adva...
- 12/03/15--11:34: _NRA still wields re...
- 11/08/15--21:17: How does your state rank for integrity?
- 11/11/15--17:50: FEC: Notable conservatives tied to nonprofit scofflaw
- 11/11/15--17:51: Super PAC aims to fix Jeb Bush
- Democrat Bernie Sanders' campaign aired more than 1,050 TV spots, besting rival Hillary Clinton's campaign by more than 200 ads. Sanders had not aired TV ads prior to this week, while Clinton has aired more than 9,000 for the election cycle.
- Carson remains the only Republican candidate — among those enjoying TV ads about their candidacies — to not rely heavily on super PACs. Carson's own campaign has sponsored more than 2,200 TV spots during the election cycle, which accounts for about 7.5 percent of TV ads so far in the Republican primary.
- Among Republican advertisers, a nonprofit group supporting Rubio ranked second behind the pro-Bush Right to Rise USA super PAC in terms of total ads aired. The pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions Project was responsible for close to 700 spots last week, or nearly one of every four TV ads in the GOP presidential primary.
- 11/17/15--13:21: Drug lobby gave $50,000 to pro-Jindal nonprofit
- 11/19/15--12:11: Congressman-auto dealer accused of conflict of interest
- 11/18/15--17:08: Secret donors fuel Democratic political powerhouse
- 11/20/15--02:00: GOP governors take cue from Obama on how to push policy
- 11/20/15--19:59: Liberal 'dark money' group rails against 'dark money'
- 11/20/15--15:09: Mysterious pro-Mitch McConnell group bankrolled by megadonors
- 11/23/15--14:02: Watchdog asks for criminal probe of conservatives tied to nonprofit
- 11/24/15--09:44: Auto-dealing congressman draws complaint
- The Republican Attorneys General Association, a national organization looking to fill every attorney general seat with a Republican, spent $1.1 million on ads in Kentucky’s race. Its major donors over the past 13 years include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, businessman Sheldon Adelson and the conservative Judicial Crisis Network. Democratic corporate attorney Andy Beshear beat out Republican Whitney Westerfield, despite the group’s support.
- The Republican State Leadership Committee, a tax-exempt group looking to fill state-level offices with Republicans, spent an estimated $988,000 on ads about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, losing all three races to Democrats. Its top donors include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative legal group American Justice Partnership and tobacco company Reynolds American.
- The Public Integrity Alliance, a nonprofit that can keep its donors hidden, entered the attorneys general races in Louisiana and Mississippi, spending an estimated $213,000 combined airing TV ads targeting Republican Buddy Caldwell and Democrat Jim Hood. Caldwell lost his race, while Hood won. This group based in Arizona played in the 2014 Arizona attorney general primary and expanded its efforts after unnamed activists asked for help, according to its president, Tyler Montague.
- The Center for Individual Freedom spent more than $748,000 on ads attacking Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell during his fight to hold his position. Caldwell lost to former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry in an all-Republican runoff. Tobacco executives formed the Virginia-based nonprofit more than 15 years ago to combat government smoking restrictions. The nonprofit, which does not need to disclose its donors, has generally backed conservative candidates across the country, airing ads in the 2014 contests for Arkansas attorney general and Michigan Supreme Court.
- The Humane Society Legislative Fund, the lobbying arm of the animal rights protection group, supported Vitter in the Louisiana governor’s race by buying an estimated $116,000 worth of ads.
- The Bluegrass Action Fund backed unsuccessful Republican Hal Heiner for the Kentucky governorship, spending an estimated $233,000 on campaign ads. About a third of its donations came from the nonprofit Citizens for a Sound Government based in Lakewood, Colorado, which does not disclose its donors. Its chairman is Alan Philp, the COO of Aegis Strategic, a group funded by David and Charles Koch.
- 12/03/15--02:00: Government has advantage in net-neutrality court face-off
- 12/03/15--11:34: NRA still wields real, if misunderstood, political power
In November 2014, Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that, among other reforms, barred the state’s elected officials from accepting lobbyists’ gifts. But that hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing to provide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries like the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals so long as they invite an entire legislative committee.
Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Meanwhile, feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.
Take the Missouri lawmaker who introduced a bill this year — which passed despite a veto by the governor— to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores. The state representative cited concern for shoppers, but he also happens to be state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, and is just one of several lawmakers in the state who pushed bills that synced with their private interests.
Or the lobbyist who, despite a $50 cap on gifts to Idaho state lawmakers, spent $2,250 in 2013 to host a state senator and his wife at the annual Governors Cup charity golf tournament in Sun Valley; the prohibition does not apply to such lobbying largess as long as the money is not spent “in return for action” on a particular bill.
In Delaware, the Public Integrity Commission, which oversees lobbying and ethics laws for the executive branch there, has just two full-time employees. A 2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”
And in New Mexico, lawmakers passed a resolution in 2013 declaring that their emails are exempt from public records laws — a rule change that did not require the governor’s signature. “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record,” one representative said.
These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states. The results are nothing short of stunning. The best grade in the nation, which went to Alaska, is just a C. Only two others earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades. The findings may be deflating to the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent poll, now look to the states for policy solutions as gridlock and partisanship have overtaken Washington D.C.
The top of the pack includes bastions of progressive government, including California (ranked 2nd with a C-), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant reforms and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government. The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.
The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Franzese said that, with many states still struggling financially, ethics oversight in particular is among the last issues to receive funding. “It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.
With a few notable exceptions, there has been little progress on these issues since the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out, in 2012. In fact, most scores have dropped since then, though some of that is due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.
Since State Integrity’s first go-round, at least 12 states have seen their legislative leaders or top cabinet-level officials charged, convicted or resign as a result of ethics or corruption-related scandal. Five house or assembly leaders have fallen. No state has outdone New York, where 14 lawmakers have left office since the beginning of 2012 due to ethical or criminal issues, according to a count by Citizens Union, an advocacy group. That does not include the former leaders of both the Assembly and the Senate, who were charged in unrelated corruption schemes earlier this year but remain in office.
New York is not remarkable, however, in at least one regard: Only one of those 14 lawmakers has been sanctioned by the state’s ethics commission.
Grading the states
When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur. Unlike many other examinations of the issue, the project does not attempt to measure corruption itself.
The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented. The “indicators” are divided into 13 categories: public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement agencies.
Experienced journalists in each state undertook exhaustive research and reporting to score each of the questions, which ask, for example, whether lawmakers are required to file financial interest disclosures, and also whether they are complete and detailed. The results are both intuitive — an F for New York’s “three men in a room” budget process — and surprising — Illinois earned the best grade in the nation for its procurement practices. All together, the project presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability and ethics in state government. It’s not a pretty picture.
Downward trend, blips of daylight
Overall, states scored notably worse in this second round. Some of that decline is because of changes to the project, such as the addition of questions asking about “open data” policies, which call on governments to publish information online in formats that are easy to download and analyze. But the drop also reflects moves toward greater secrecy in some states.
“Across the board, accessing government has always been, but is increasingly, a barrier to people from every reform angle,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, vice president for state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group with chapters in most states.
No state saw its score fall farther than New Jersey, where scandal after scandal seems to have sunk Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations deep into the muck of the state’s brawling, back-scratching political history. New Jersey earned a B+, the best score in the nation, in 2012 — shocking just about anyone familiar with the state’s politics — thanks to tough ethics and anti-corruption laws that had been passed over the previous decade in response to a series of scandals.
None of that has changed. But journalists, advocates and academics have accused the Christie administration of fighting and delaying potentially damaging public records requests and meddling in the affairs of the State Ethics Commission. That’s on top of Bridgegate, the sprawling scandal that began as a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but has led to the indictments so far of one of the governor’s aides and two of his appointees — one of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges — and even to the resignations of top executives at United Airlines. As a result of these scandals and others, New Jersey dropped to 19th place overall with a D grade.
Admittedly, it’s not all doom and gloom. Iowa created an independent board with authority to mediate disputes when agencies reject public records requests. Gov. Terry Branstad cited the state’s previous grade from the Center when he signed the bill, and the move helped catapult Iowa to first in the nation in the category for access to information, with a C- grade (Iowa’s overall score actually dropped modestly).
In Georgia, good government groups latched on to the state’s worst-in-the-nation rank in 2012 to amplify their ongoing push for reforms. The result was a modest law the following year that created a $75 cap on the value of lobbyists’ gifts to public officials. The change helped boost the state’s score in the category of legislative accountability to a C-, sixth-best in the nation.
Perhaps the most dramatic reforms came in Virginia, where scandal engulfed the administration of outgoing Gov. Robert McDonnell in 2013 after it emerged that he and his family had accepted more than $170,000 in loans and gifts, much of it undisclosed, from a Virginia businessman. McDonnell and his wife were later convicted on federal corruption charges, but the case underscored the state’s woefully lax ethics laws and oversight regime; Virginia received an overall F grade in 2012. At the time, there was no limit on the value of gifts that public officials could accept, and they were not required to disclose gifts to their immediate family, a clause that McDonnell grasped at to argue that he had complied with state laws. (Appeals of the McDonnells’ convictions are pending.)
Over the next two years, newly-elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers passed a series of executive actions and laws that eventually led, in 2015, to a $100 cap on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and people seeking state business. They also created an ethics council that will advise lawmakers but will not have the power to issue sanctions. Advocates for ethics reform have said the changes, while significant, fall far short of what’s needed, particularly the creation of an ethics commission with enforcement powers. Still, they helped push the state's grade up to a D.
States also continued to score relatively well in the categories for auditing practices — 29 earned B- or better — and for budget transparency — 16 got a B- or above (the category measures whether the budget process is transparent, with sufficient checks and balances, not whether it’s well managed).
In Idaho, for example, which earned an A and the second best score for its budget process, the public is free to watch the Legislature’s joint budget committee meetings. Those not able to make it to Boise can watch by streaming video. Citizens can provide input during hearings and can view the full budget bill online.
New York earned the top score for its auditing practices — a B+ — because of its robustly-funded state comptroller’s office, which is headed by an elected official who is largely protected from interference by the governor or Legislature. The office issues an annual report, which is publicly available, and has shown little hesitation to go after state agencies, such as in a recent audit that identified $500 million in waste in the state’s Medicaid program.
Unfortunately, however, such bright spots are the exceptions.
In 2013, George LeVines submitted a request for records to the Massachusetts State Police, asking for controlled substance seizure reports at state prisons dating back seven years. LeVines, who at the time was assistant editor at Muckrock, a news website and records-request repository, soon received a response from the agency saying he could have copies of the reports, but they would cost him $130,000. While LeVines is quick to admit that his request was extremely broad, the figure shocked him nonetheless.
“I wouldn’t have ever expected getting that just scot-free, that does cost money,” he said. But $130,000? “It’s insane.”
The cost was prohibitive, and LeVines withdrew his request. The Massachusetts State Police has become a notorious steel trap of information — it's charged tens of thousands of dollars or even, in one case, $2.7 million to produce documents — and was awarded this year with the tongue-in-cheek Golden Padlock award by a national journalism organization, which each year “honors” an agency or public official for its “abiding commitment to secrecy and impressive skill in information suppression.”
Dave Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said in an email that the department is committed to transparency, but that its records are laced with sensitive information that's exempt from disclosure and that reviewing the material is time consuming and expensive. "While we most certainly agree that the public has a right to information not legally exempt from disclosure,” he wrote, “we will not cut corners for the purpose of expediency or economy if doing so means that private personal, medi[c]al, or criminal history information is inappropriately released.”
It’s not just the police. Both the Legislature and the judicial branch are at least partly exempt from Massachusetts’ public records law. Governors have cited a state Supreme Court ruling to argue that they, too, are exempt, though chief executives often comply with requests anyway. A review by The Boston Globe found that the secretary of state’s office, the first line of appeal for rejected requests, had ruled in favor of those seeking records in only 1-in-5 cases. Needless to say, Massachusetts earned an F in the category for public access to information. But so did 43 other states, making this the worst performing category in the State Integrity Investigation.
While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions and usually have essentially no enforcement mechanisms, beyond the court system, when agencies refuse to comply. In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws. Many agencies routinely fail to explain why they they’ve denied requests. Public officials charge excessive fees to discourage requestors. In the vast majority of states, citizens are unable to quickly and affordably resolve appeals when their records are denied. Only one state — Missouri — received a perfect score on a question asking whether citizens actually receive responses to their requests swiftly and at reasonable cost.
“We’re seeing increased secrecy throughout the country at the state and federal level,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and an expert on open records laws. He said substantial research shows that the nation’s open records laws have been poked and prodded to include a sprawling list of exemptions and impediments, and that public officials increasingly use those statutes to deny access to records. “It’s getting worse every year,” he said.
After a series of shootings by police officers in New Mexico, the Santa Fe New Mexican published a report about controversial changes made to the state-run training academy. But when a reporter requested copies of the new curriculum, the program’s director refused, saying “I’ll burn them before you get them.”
In January, The Wichita Eagle reported that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had used his private email address to send details of a proposed budget to the private email accounts of fellow staff members, and also to a pair of lobbyists. He later said he did so only because he and the rest of the staff were home for the holidays. But in May, Brownback acknowledged that he, too, used a private email account to communicate with staff, meaning his correspondence was not subject to the state’s public records laws. A state council is now studying how to close the loophole. A series of court cases in California are examining a similar question there.
Cuillier said in most states, courts or others have determined that discussions of public business are subject to disclosure, no matter whether the email or phone used was public or private. But the debate is indicative of a larger problem, and it reveals public records laws as the crazy old uncle of government statutes: toothless, antiquated appendages of a bygone era.
Weak ethics oversight
Governments write ethics laws for a reason, presumably. Public officials can’t always be trusted to do the right thing; we need laws to make sure they do. The trouble is, a law is only as good as its enforcement, and the entities responsible for overseeing ethics are often impotent and ineffective.
In many states, a complex mix of legislative committees, stand-alone commissions and law enforcement agencies police the ethics laws. And more often than not, the State Integrity Investigation shows, those entities are underfunded, subject to political interference or are simply unable or unwilling to initiate investigations and issue sanctions when rules are broken. Or at least that’s as far as the public can tell: many of these bodies operate largely in secret.
The Tennessee Ethics Commission, for example, rose in 2006 out of the ashes of an FBI bribery probe that had burned four state lawmakers. In its decade of operation, the commission has never issued a penalty as a result of an ethics complaint against a public official (it did issue one to a lobbyist). That may seem surprising, but the dearth of actions is impossible to assess because the complaints become public only if four of six commissioners decide they warrant investigation. Of 17 complaints received in 2013 and 2014, only two are public.
“There just haven’t been that many valid complaints alleging wrongdoing,” said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, which includes the commission.
In 2013, in a case that did become public, the commission decided against issuing a fine to a powerful lobbyist and former adviser to Gov. Bill Haslam who had failed to disclose that he’d lobbied on behalf of a mining company that was seeking a state contract. The lobbyist had maintained that his failure was simply an oversight, and only one commissioner voted to issue a penalty.
In Kansas, staff shortages mean the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission is unable to fully audit lawmakers’ financial disclosures, according to Executive Director Carol Williams. “We would love to be able to do more comprehensive audits,” Williams told the investigation’s Kansas reporter. Instead, she said, all her staff can do is make sure officials are filling out the forms. “Whether they are correct or not, we don't know.” Only two states initiate comprehensive, independent audits of lawmakers’ asset disclosures on an annual basis.
The State Integrity Investigation found that in two-thirds of all states, ethics agencies or committees routinely fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions when necessary, often because they’re unable to do so without first receiving a complaint.
“Many of these laws are out of date. They need to be revised,” said Robert Stern, who spent decades as president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which worked with local and state governments to improve ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws until it shut in 2011. Stern, who is currently helping to write a ballot initiative that would update California’s ethics statutes, said that while he thinks the State Integrity Investigation grades are unrealistically harsh, they do reflect the fact that state lawmakers have neglected their responsibilities when it comes to ethics and transparency. “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them, and they don’t want to fund the people enforcing them.”
In 3-in-5 states, the project found, ethics entities are inadequately funded, causing staff to be overloaded with work and, occasionally, forcing them to delay investigations.
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission is charged with overseeing ethics laws for the executive and legislative branches, lobbying activity and campaign finance. This year, the commission operated on a budget of $1 million. In 2014, the nonprofit news site Oklahoma Watch reported that the commission had collected only 40 percent of all the late-filing penalties it had assessed to candidates, committees and other groups since it was created in 1990. Part of that failure was the result of a challenge to the commission’s rules, but Executive Director Lee Slater said that much of it was simply due to a lack of resources.
“Until about a month ago, we had five employees in this office,” Slater said. “We’ve now got six. Try to do it with six employees.” Slater said the commission this year began collecting all fees it is owed, thanks to the sixth employee — whose salary is financed with fees — and new rules that clarify its authority. But he said the agency simply does not have enough money to do what it ought to. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we do everything we should,” he said. “But I will tell you that we do the best that we can, whatever that is.”
Slater said he’s been told to expect a cut of between 5 and 20 percent to the commission’s appropriations next year ($775,000 of the commission’s current budget comes from appropriations).
Oklahoma is hardly an outlier. “They don’t have the resources,” Stern said, speaking of similar agencies across the country. “That’s the problem.”
New frontier points to old problem
Not long ago, journalists and citizen watchdogs were thrilled to get access to any type of information online. But standards have changed quickly, and many have come to expect government to not just publish data online, but to do so in “open data” formats that allow users to download and analyze the information.
"By making data available digitally, it can be more easily reused and repurposed,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group. (Global Integrity consulted with the Sunlight Foundation when writing the open data questions for this project).
Only nine states have adopted open data measures, according to the Sunlight Foundation, some of which do little more than create an advisory panel to study the issue.
The 2015 State Integrity Investigation included questions in each category asking whether governments are meeting open data principles. Almost universally, the answer was no. More than anything, these scores were responsible for dragging down the grades since the first round of the project.
While open data principles are relatively new, the poor performance on these questions is indicative of the project’s findings as a whole. “If we really wanted to do it right we’d just scrap it all and start from scratch,” said Cuillier, of the University of Arizona, speaking of the broken state of open records and accessibility laws. That clearly is not going to happen, he said, so instead, “we’re going to continue to have laws that are archaic and tinkered with, and usually in the wrong direction.”
This articles draws on reporting from State Integrity Investigation reporters in all 50 states.
Three notable conservatives — including a top fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio — are linked to a now-defunct “dark money” nonprofit group that failed to disclose several million dollars spent on candidate-related TV ads, according to documents released Friday by the Federal Election Commission.
Those involved with the Commission for the Hope, Growth and Opportunity group include William Canfield, general counsel for pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC CARLY for America; Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Wayne Berman, a senior adviser at Blackstone who serves as presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s national finance chairman.
Within 227 pages of FEC legal documents released after a five-year investigation, the three men are characterized as being a part of the decision-making core behind the law-breaking nonprofit’s decidedly political activities.
But the trio, as well as the group itself, will likely dodge punishment.
Habitually gridlocked FEC commissioners — three are Republican appointees, three Democratic appointees — could only agree that the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity violated federal law by failing to properly report details about its ads. In doing so, the commission voted to “take no action at this time” on the violation.
The commissioners then deadlocked 3-3 over whether the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity broke the law by failing to “organize, register and report as a political committee.” The three Democratic commissioners voted to find the group in violation while the three Republican commissioners dissented.
“This is one of the most outrageous decisions that I have ever seen come out of the commission,” Ann Ravel, the FEC’s Democratic chairwoman, told the Center for Public Integrity.
In a joint statement, the commission’s Republicans — Matthew Petersen, Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman — said no action against the group is merited because the group has disbanded. “Any conciliation effort would be futile … the most prudent course was to close the file,” they wrote.
The lack of enforcement follows damningconclusions from the FEC’s own lawyers, who contended that the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity was blatantly and primarily political. Federal rules stipulate that the primary purpose of a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit can’t be politics.
While acknowledging difficulties in punishing the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity, FEC lawyers nevertheless recommended pursuing enforcement actions.
Through 2010, the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity received $4 million from one undisclosed donor — an amount that made up most of its $4.8 million fundraising total.
The nonprofit then directed an estimated 85 percent of that $4.8 million toward a large-scale ad blitz in key 2010 House races without disclosing any of it to the FEC, agency lawyers wrote.
Of its spending, an estimated 61 percent went to “express advocacy” — or outright calling for the election or defeat of a candidate, FEC lawyers said.
Michael Mihalke, a principal from political consulting firm Meridian Strategies LLC, told FEC lawyers that “Canfield and Reed approved the content, production, and placement of all CHGO-related television ads” while Berman received a “fundraising commission” from the group’s coffers after the 2010 election.
The three men told FEC lawyers that they had limited involvement with the group. Berman told investigators that he offered advice on a “voluntary basis.” After being pressed by lawyers, Reed said that he had been “involved in discussions on the strategic placements of television ads for CHGO but could recall no details of these discussions.”
Reed and Berman declined to comment while Canfield could not be reached for comment.
In a November 2010 letter to the FEC, Canfield asked the agency to dismiss the complaints against the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity. He argued that the FEC had failed to follow “statutory and regulatory-mandated timely notice requirements,” and Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity was therefore “denied procedural fundamental fairness by the Commission.”
Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity serves as an example of a nonprofit group that enjoys a preferred tax status because it purports to be focused on “social welfare.”
Often referred to as “dark money” groups, these nonprofits are not required to disclose donors and are barred from engaging in politics as their primary activity. Some groups have been criticized for pushing the boundary on how much they participate politically.
Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity’s public activities began soon after its organizers checked a box on an IRS form, indicating in 2010 that they did not plan on spending money to influence elections.
The group’s mission, according to IRS documents, was to “implement statutes, rules and regulations that are consistent with free-market principles and that adhere [to] economic growth and expansion.”
That same year, the nonprofit directed an estimated $4.7 million on TV advertisements that criticized House Democrats such as former Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., former Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo. and former Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., all of whom were unseated during 2010 election.
In one ad that targeted Spratt, a voice calls for voters to “pull the plug on this song and dance once and for all” on Spratt, “who approved billions in deficit spending without missing a beat.”
The ad then goes on to boost Mick Mulvaney, a Republican who defeated Spratt for his seat in 2010.
Two organizations filed FEC complaints following the ad flurry: watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In a 2012 report, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity as the “worst” of the shadow groups pumping money into the election.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the FEC’s deadlocked vote “outrageous and profoundly disturbing.”
“The fact that three Commissioners nonetheless prevented any action on the matter is powerful evidence of the dysfunction currently incapacitating the FEC,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “CREW is working to determine what further legal steps can be taken to attempt to ensure accountability for serious abuses of the laws governing political organizations."
Ravel said the recent decision sends a message to other outside groups that the FEC sends continuously: that the FEC is unwilling to enforce the law.
“When people see that, they tend to act with impunity,” Ravel said.
This story was co-published with the Daily Beast.
A moneyed super PAC, meanwhile, is fighting to fix Jeb.
Pro-Bush Right to Rise USA aired more than 1,400 ads on TV networks and national cable from Nov. 3 through Nov. 9, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data provided by advertising tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
For the week, that represents nearly one in three presidential-focused TV ads aired by any candidate or political committee, Republican or Democratic — and roughly one of every two spots in the GOP presidential primary.
The super PAC boost comes at a critical time for Bush, who faces — in the words of Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager — a "make-or-break moment" while tonight sharing a Republican presidential debate stage with seven other GOP hopefuls.
And it allows Bush's own campaign, which has struggledmightily to keep cashflowing, to conserve resources. A candidate's own presidential campaign may only accept contributions of $2,700 per person, per election. Super PACs, in contrast, may gobble up contributions of any amount, at any time.
Consider that pro-Bush Right to Rise USA has sponsored nearly 10,000 TV ad spots for the election cycle through Monday. Bush own campaign? About 400.
Through June, the Right to Rise USA super PAC, which Bush himself formed before becoming a presidential candidate, had raised more than $100 million. Bush's official campaign committee raised only about $25 million through the end of September.
On one hand, the ad blitz — most are running on stations servicing early caucus and primary states Iowa,New Hampshire and South Carolina — haven't seemed to help Bush much at all. Recent national polls show the former Florida governor languishing in single digits behind businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
On the other, where might Bush be without them? In New Hampshire, where the pro-Bush super PAC has inundated the airwaves, Bush's numbers are marginally better than his standing in national polls. Same in Iowa. Recent super PAC ads have focused on Bush's record on jobs, financial matters and budgetary issues.
Among other developments from the past week's presidential TV ad war:
This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.
CHISINAU, Moldova– The sample of highly-enriched uranium, of a type that could be used in a nuclear bomb, arrived here on a rainy summer day four years ago, in a blue shopping bag carried by a former policeman.
According to court documents, the bag quickly passed through the hands of three others on its way to a prospective buyer. It was not the first time such material had passed through this city, raising international alarms: It had happened twice before. And mysteriously, in all three cases, spanning more than a decade, the nuclear material appeared to have the same origin – a restricted military installation in Russia.
This news would quickly reach Washington. But that day, the first to pick up the blue bag was the wife of a former Russian military officer, who handed it off to a friend while she went shopping in this former Soviet city’s ragged downtown.
Not long afterward, a 57-year old lawyer named Teodor Chetrus, from a provincial town near the Ukrainian border, retrieved it and brought it to a meeting with a man named Ruslan Andropov. According to an account by Moldovan police, the two men had, earlier in the day, visited a local bank, where Chetrus confirmed that Andropov had deposited more than $330,000 as an initial payment.
Andropov next examined the contents of the bag: a lead-lined cylinder, shaped like a thermos. It was meant to be the first of several shipments of highly-enriched uranium totaling 10 kilograms (22 lbs), a senior investigator here said. That’s about a fifth of what might be needed to fuel a Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosion — but almost enough to power a more technically-advanced “implosion-style” nuclear bomb.
But then, abruptly, Chetrus’s participation with this group of shadowy characters in the illicit sale of nuclear explosive materials — the stuff of nightmares at the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House — went awry.
Andropov turned out to be working with Moldovan police, who were monitoring communications between those involved, with advice from the U.S. embassy in Chishinau. On June 27, 2011, they swooped in. Photos of the arrests show a policeman in a ski mask holding a Kalashnikov while Chetrus knelt on a sidewalk in front of the bank. He would eventually be sentenced to five years in prison.
Chetrus’s arrest ended one of four attempts in the past five years by Moldovan residents to smuggle dangerous nuclear materials into the hands of unscrupulous buyers. But his capture did not ease the concerns of Western intelligence services.
Instead, it stoked them, because the resulting international probe into the case has sparked fresh, and previously unreported worries, that thieves inside of Russia somehow made off years ago with a full bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. Western spies fear the thieves have been doggedly looking for a buyer for the past sixteen years, by repeatedly dangling in front of them identical, genuine samples of that highly valuable material.
Five current or former U.S. officials who have tracked nuclear smuggling, and who declined to be named because this assessment is classified, said it is now a consensus view within the intelligence community.
But no one in the West knows exactly who has this nuclear explosive material, and where they may be.
It’s a mystery that so far has stumped America’s best spying efforts, in no small measure because the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin has refused to provide needed information on the case – or even to acknowledge that some of the country’s nuclear explosive materials are missing.
Three identical incidents
Western concerns are based on a simple trail of evidence that officials have until now kept secret: Three times since 1999, identically packaged containers of highly-enriched uranium have been seized by authorities outside of Russia — in Ruse, Bulgaria, in May 1999; in Paris in July 2001; and most recently here in Chisinau. In each case those holding the uranium said it was part of a larger cache, available to a buyer for the right price. That claim, while unproven, is considered credible by experts who have studied the three incidents.
Confidential forensic analysis by U.S. and French nuclear scientists — worthy of a “CSI” episode — has shown that these materials came from the same stockpile. Officials say they believe all were produced in the early 1990s at a sprawling Russian nuclear facility known as the Mayak Production Association, located in Ozersk, in the Ural mountains, roughly 900 miles (1,400 km) east of Moscow. The facility, which produced the fuel for Russia’s first nuclear warheads and for its naval nuclear reactors, is still one of the country’s “closed cities,” where access is tightly regulated.
The similarities between these three seizures make them the most worrisome unresolved instances of illicit trafficking in authentic, bomb-grade materials anywhere in the world, according to more than a dozen government officials and independent experts interviewed for this article, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
While seven of those involved in the smuggling have so far been prosecuted in Bulgaria, France and Moldova, officials say they are just low-level members of a shadowy international ring with Moldovan and Russian connections, all working for a person or persons whose identity remains cloaked.
Intelligence professionals — who say they put the issue of nuclear smuggling near the top of all their priorities — explain that this is a hard target to hit. Their principal ambition is to catch the thief and the buyer, but so far they have seen only middlemen.
But evidence collected from the probes of these three incidents indicates that a weapons-grade cache of nuclear material has been “in the wild since the mid-1990s,” a knowledgable U.S. intelligence official said. It’s widely thought to be no longer in Russia, and to possibly have passed through multiple hands, the official added, explaining that the 2011 Moldovan case is what helped solidify this assessment.
The basis for international worry, several officials explained, is the potential for all or part of this nuclear-materials cache to wind up in the hands of a terrorist buyer who could transform it into a viable weapon, using technical information about nuclear bomb designs that has leaked long ago into the public domain.
The FBI has privately discounted Moldovan claims that radioactive materials seized in more recent smuggling incidents here were being sought by the Islamic State terrorist group. Still, American worries about the 2011 Chisinau case were heightened by the presence in the Moldovan capital at the time of the deal of a potential buyer from Sudan, where Al Qaeda tried to obtain some uranium in the early 1990s and remains active, officials here and in Washington said.
With so many nuclear explosives held by governments around the world, US officials have long worried about the possibility of a terrorist-engineered nuclear or radiological blast within the United States. Multiple federal agencies have held almost 1,400 drills in cities around the country over the last decade to train local police and emergency personnel in how to behave after such a nightmare unfolds, according to a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Asked at a March 2014 nuclear security summit in the Netherlands whether he thought Russia’s assertive foreign policy was the number one threat to the United States, President Obama replied that “I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”
According to a 2004 Department of Homeland Security guidebook to disaster response, even a relatively small nuclear detonation — comparable to 10,000 tons of TNT, or about half the force of the blast that levelled Nagasaki — would kill hundreds of thousands of people, contaminate 3,000 square miles (7,800 sq km), and cause billions of dollars in damages, while leaving an urban area a mile (1.6 km) in diameter a smoking wasteland.
The nuclear smuggling capital
Besides making the arrests in 2011, Moldovan police detained three people who they said were trying to smuggle depleted uranium in Aug. 2010, and last year the FBI helped investigate a group that tried to smuggle low-enriched uranium – neither of which can be used in a nuclear bomb. This year, further arrests were made in a case involving cesium, a radioactive, but not explosive, material.
Experts say Moldova’s repeated role in nuclear smuggling is unsurprising, since cross-border crime is much more prevalent in poorly governed or fractured states.
Roughly the size of Maryland with about two-thirds the population, it is one of the poorest former Soviet republics. Filled with rolling fields and tiny villages, the country is squeezed between Romania and Ukraine and brushed by the Danube River. The capital of Chisinau, a brash and dusty place, shows signs of fast economic growth that has benefited only a sliver of its citizens. BMWs and Lexus sedans share the streets with hordes of tiny taxis and Soviet-era streetcars, and pensioners line the sidewalks peddling soaps, samovars and women’s underwear.
Since 1992, its territory has been split into two ethnically separate regions, dominated one by Romanian and the other by Russian and Ukrainian speakers. Russian troops have been stationed for decades in the second of these regions, known as Transnistria, a sliver of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester River, over the opposition of the central government.
Like other fragments of the former Soviet empire occupied by Russian troops, Transnistria is a haven for smugglers, particularly of cigarettes, arms, and prostitutes. It has its own flag, displaying a hammer and sickle, but isn’t recognized as a country by any member of the United Nations, including Russia.
The Transnistrian capital, Tiraspol, is where Galina Agheenco — who picked up the blue bag containing the uranium from the former policeman and passed it to a friend — lived with her husband Alexander, 58, a mustachioed Russian former military colonel, according to officials here. An English-language slide presentation about the incident prepared by the Moldovan Ministry of Internal Affairs calls Alexander the “leader of the criminal group” involved in the nuclear smuggling incident.
His ambition, a Moldovan Supreme Court ruling in May 2014 said, was to sell a total of one kilogram of highly-enriched uranium for roughly $36 million, in a deal plotted on Skype, on mobile phones, and in emails — many of which turned out to be monitored by the government. The actual material offered prior to the police raid was one-hundredth of that amount.
But Col. Gheorghe Cavcaliuc, a soft-spoken, young Moldovan police official who heads the special operations division, said in an interview here that efforts by the police to learn more about Alexander’s activities and connections have been stymied. An arrest warrant for him is still unfulfilled, five years later, and officials here say they heard he fled from Transnistria to Russia. Attempts by the Center for Public Integrity to obtain his response to the allegations against him were unsuccessful.
“We sent several requests to the Russian Federation for information about him, but we didn’t get any answers,” Cavcaliuc said.
Washington hasn’t fared any better. The U.S. Embassy here “does not maintain liaison relationships or active, ongoing contacts with Transnistrian law enforcement and/or security service personnel,” a December 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks said.
Galina Agheenco, whose Lexus GS330 car had Transnistrian plates, was detained on the day of the incident and served three years in prison. But the former policeman who brought her the uranium, and was charged in the case, returned to Transnistria when he was released by a court pending trial, defying a judge’s order, according to the Moldovan police report. Chetrus, meanwhile, was freed from prison last December and is appealing his sentence.
The two other cases involving identical samples of nuclear explosives — in France and Bulgaria — also had Moldovan connections, according to investigators here.
Nuclear explosive materials in a van and a trunk
The 2001 Paris case arose from a tip given to the police there that a 36-year old Frenchman with a criminal record, Serge Salfati, was trying to find a buyer for 30 kilograms ( 66 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium – more than enough for a skilled bomb-maker to produce a nuclear explosion. He was using genuine samples weighing a total of 5 grams as a lure.
A special police squad checked for radiation in Salfati’s apartment and garage, but found nothing. Their detectors then got a hit from a van he used, and so they arrested him and seized a lead container containing the samples.
The plane carrying the uranium to Paris flew to Charles de Gaulle airport from Chisinau, said Ionel Balan, Deputy Director of Moldova’s National Agency for Regulation of Nuclear and Radiological Activities, in an interview here.
The Bulgarian case ,two years earlier, arose when a man driving over a bridge at a Danube River crossing to Romania aroused the suspicions of a border guard, who searched his vehicle. The guard found a receipt, written in Cyrillic, for the purchase of “uranium 235,” and then, after pulling apart an air compressor in the trunk, found a lead container inside with that label on it. The man, Urskan Hanifi, told police he bought the material in Moldova and was headed back there after failing to find a buyer for it in Turkey, according to media accounts and a U.S. government report.
Cavcaliuc said he is convinced that a single group stands behind each of the three smuggling cases, and that a larger cache of material could be hidden in Transnistria. “In all three cases, there was the same container, the same chemical components [of the uranium] and traffickers from the same country, Moldova,” he said.
A unmarked plane carrying FBI agents
But no one knew any of this immediately. When the lead canister seized in 2011 was initially brought to the Moldovan government’s rudimentary police laboratory, Balan, a biochemist, expected it to be a hoax and so he handled it without gloves or a smock. He found the inside wall had been coated with about an inch of paraffin wax, and inside it was a small glass ampoule shaped like a tiny harpoon, containing a blackish powder.
He used a snub-nosed radiation detector to take two readings, and then he consulted a dog-eared copy of a nuclear materials guide published by Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States and used worldwide as a reference manual: “And immediately, I understood this was not simple or natural uranium, it was enriched uranium.”
His readings also indicated some of it had decayed, “a clear indication that this sample was old and not fresh.”
Word of this result quickly reached Washington and, shortly afterward, an umarked private jet landed at the Chisinau airport, secretly carrying FBI agents. They scooped up the canister and its contents and flew them back to the United States.
The samples were taken to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where US nuclear weapons have been designed since the 1950s and a group known as the Forensic Science Division specializes in analyzing foreign materials, using a classified library of radioactive particles collected by US officials and intelligence sources all over the globe.
According to Moldovan authorities, a preliminary report by the division, entitled “Results for Moldovan HEU Sample,” concluded that the uranium was produced in Russia and eerily similar to the materials seized a decade earlier in France and Bulgaria.
They did not provide details, but US officials said the isotopic signature, along with other evidence, pointed directly at Russia’s Mayak plant as the origin.
Patrick Grant, one of the lead Livermore investigators, declined to discuss the Moldovan case, but said in an interview that the findings in the Paris case “correlate very well” with those of the uranium seized in Bulgaria. In a 2014 textbook for nuclear forensic scientists, Grant and several colleagues wrote that the ampoules seized in Bulgaria resembled those used to preserve samples from specific production runs at Russian nuclear processing plants. Each of these plants, he said, might have dozens of such samples on its shelves.
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear security expert at Harvard who wrote a classified study about Russian fissile material stocks during the Clinton administration, said such samples would be relatively easy to steal. “You could easily imagine a room full of hundreds of samples… and someone sweeping them into a suitcase and walking out,” he said.
A chaotic moment at Russian nuclear plants
The apparent age of the purloined materials is not reassuring. The Livermore team fixed the time of the Bulgarian sample production as Oct. 30, 1993, plus or minus one month — a time when Russian political turmoil and economic problems had by many accounts seriously weakened security at the country’s nuclear installations.
At some facilities, security guards and scientists alike were not paid, and morale plummeted. Moreover, “they didn’t have seals, badge systems, or a computerized database” that showed how much explosive material they had and where it was, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In 1994, a machinist at the Elektrostal Machine-Building Plant, a nuclear fuel production facility 36 miles (57 km) east of Moscow, told police he carried six and a half pounds (3 kg) of weapons-grade uranium out of the front gate, hidden in a pair of protective gloves. He gave the material to a relative, a butcher in St. Petersburg, who stored it in a jar in his refrigerator while he and two friends – a pipelayer and an unemployed man – hunted for buyers at open-air markets.
That same year, a Elektrostal metalworker named Vladimir Luzgachev smuggled out another 3.7 pounds (1.7 kg) of enriched uranium in a bag of apples. He was not arrested until June 1995, when Russia’s Federal Security Service learned of his efforts to find a buyer.
Both of those episodes occurred several years after the Federal Security Service arrested a group of nuclear workers for involvement in the theft of 41 pounds (18 kg) of nuclear explosive material from an unnamed facility in Chelyabinsk province, where the Mayak Production Association and three other major plants are located.
Viktor Yerastov, then chief of the Nuclear Materials Accounting and Control Department for the Ministry of Atomic Energy, said in the Winter 2000 edition of Russia’s Yaderny Kontrol (Nuclear Control) magazine that if successful, that theft “could have inflicted a significant damage to the state.” A 2002 CIA report to Congress separately quoted him as saying the amount stolen was “quite sufficient material to produce an atomic bomb.”
No accounting of what was stolen years ago
Washington’s anxieties about a potential radioactive “dirty bomb” or nuclear blast on US soil have always been centered around the risk that explosive materials — more than a bomb’s mechanical workings — could fall into the wrong hands. “In the nuclear business, it’s all about the materials,” said Anne Harrington, deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, in an interview last year. “You can make widgets, pieces and parts, but without the material you don’t have an improvised [nuclear] device.”
Although roughly two dozen countries have enough nuclear explosives to make a bomb, Russia’s materials have long been the chief Western concern. Of the roughly 20 documented seizures of nuclear explosive materials since 1992, all have “come out of the former Soviet Union,” Harrington separately told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces in April 2015. “We see a lot of former Russian military, former Russian intel… involved in nuclear trafficking,” a US intelligence official said in an interview.
Officials say that’s why Washington has spent about $4 billion over the past 25 years to help that country tighten control of the weapons-usable materials inside its vast nuclear complex. Russian nuclear facilities have made progress, they say, particularly in improving training for security personnel, installing new physical barriers and upgrading related sensor technology. New nuclear security regulations came into effect in 2012, and a civilian oversight group was created to ensure their implementation.
But a senior intelligence official from the Bush administration who retains security clearances said that he was still worried about material stolen decades ago that may be “sloshing around” outside the walls of these facilities. “The real concern is that the material got out of these sites before we paid much attention” to securing them, he said in an interview, speaking on condition he not be named so he could discuss classified analyses.
This anxiety has been sporadically acknowledged by intelligence officials in the past decade. “We find it highly unlikely that Russian authorities would have been able to recover all the material reportedly stolen,” a National Intelligence Council report concluded in 2005, according to an excerpt read by then-Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2005.
Rockefeller asked then-CIA Director Porter Goss whether enough had vanished from Russia’s stockpile to build a nuclear weapon. “There is sufficient material unaccounted for so that it would be possible for those with know-how to construct a nuclear weapon,” Goss responded. Rockefeller also asked if Goss could assure the American people the missing material was not in terrorist hands. “No, I can’t make that assurance,” Goss said. “I can’t account for some of the material so I can’t make the assurance about its whereabouts.”
In November 2002, a senior Russian nuclear and radiation safety official, Yuri Vishnevskiy, affirmed that small quantities of nuclear materials, including highly-enriched uranium, had indeed disappeared from nuclear facilities. But Russian officials have been increasingly tight-lipped since then.
Former CIA director George Tenet, in his 2007 memoir, said that after hearing Al Qaeda was trying to buy Russian nuclear devices in 2003, an Energy Department intelligence official went to Moscow to seek information about “reports we had received of missing material.” But the Russians refused to provide details, Tenet wrote, and “in the final analysis, it was still a game of spy versus spy.”
To overcome some of this distrust, U.S. officials tried the following year to draw Russia into joint analysis of fissile materials seized in the Bulgarian incident, but had only limited success. Scientists at Livermore shared a half-gram of that highly-enriched uranium with Russia's Bochvar All-Russia Scientific Research Institute in Moscow, and paid them $50,000 to do an independent analysis.
According to a report by Michael Kristo, a chemist at Livermore, Bochvar scientists “confirmed the analytical results” reached at his laboratory, including the fact that the sample originated at a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility. But Bochvar did not agree with Livermore that this meant it came from the former Soviet Union, and instead claimed “it could have been produced by any nuclear state possessing the appropriate facilites,” Kristo wrote.
“They’re very guarded and sensitive about the possibility that anything is missing,” a former senior Obama administration official said in a recent interview, echoing comments from many others in Washington. “They never told us” whether they investigated the 2011 Moldovan case or what they found.
The 2011 version of an annual CIA report on Russian nuclear security practices — the most recent one completed — reaffirmed that “we judge it highly unlikely that Russian authorities have been able to recover all of the stolen material,” and added that large uncertainties exist about more recent thefts and the current state of Russia’s safeguards.
Under Putin, Russia has steadily cut back its overall nuclear security cooperation with the United States, arguing that it no longer needs Washington’s financial or technical assistance to safeguard its own fissile material stockpile. “It just faded to a tertiary issue under Putin,” Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said in an interview. This year, for the first time in its budget proposal to Congress, administrators at the National Nuclear Security Administration shifted all Russia-related nuclear security expenditures to other purposes.
Officials with Rosatom, the state-owned corporation that runs Russia’s nuclear energy and weapons plants, declined to be interviewed for this article. But Kirill Komarov, first deputy director of Rosatom, spoke briefly to a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity at Moscow’s AtomExpo nuclear exposition in June.
Asked whether a cache of stolen Russian nuclear materials might be held by someone with ill motives, Komarov was dismissive, calling it “a question out of spy plots.”
“You know very well that a very operational system of controlling nuclear materials has been established worldwide — none of them are out of control,” Komarov said, adding that these materials are not passed around like a box of matches among smokers. “Their movements are always strictly controlled,” he said.
Vladimir Rybachenkov, a former counselor on nuclear issues at the Russian Embassy in Washington and now an advisor to the Russian Foreign Ministry, similarly dismissed fears that there were caches of Russian-made nuclear explosive materials that smugglers were dipping into to peddle on the black market.
“Many things are being invented, you know, kind of illusions,” Rybachenkov said. “People like journalists like to write about things that they don’t know for sure. So it’s rumors — rumors and nothing more.”
Birch reported from Russia and Moldova; Smith reported from Washington, D.C., and California.
This story was co-published with VICE News.
Crossroads GPS, one of the nation’s largest politically active “dark money” nonprofits, quietly supplied millions of dollars in 2014 to other politically active nonprofit groups seeking to influence the midterm elections, according to new tax filings reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
One group received nearly all its money from Crossroads GPS: Carolina Rising, a North Carolina-based group that sprang up and spent almost all its money running thousands of TV ads that boosted now-U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis in what was one of the nation’s most hotly contested Senate races.
Crossroads GPS reported giving Carolina Rising $4.82 million, or roughly 99 percent of its revenue. The group appears to have received only one other contribution, for $60,000, according to a tax filing posted by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that last month filed a complaint against Carolina Rising with the Internal Revenue Service.
Crossroads GPS and Carolina Rising are both “social welfare” nonprofits organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. Such nonprofits have assumed new, high-profile roles in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010.
Their nonprofit status means they aren’t required to reveal their donors, making the source of the money behind the Carolina Rising ads — filtered through two different layers of anonymity — nearly impossible to penetrate.
Crossroads GPS — together with a related super political action committee, American Crossroads, that does reveal its donors — spent nearly $49 million directly on the 2014 elections, all supporting Republican candidates, according to campaign finance data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The two groups were co-founded by Karl Rove, a political strategist and former advisor to then-President George W. Bush.
Targeting the Senate
But the new tax filing shows Crossroads GPS also gave millions in additional money to other groups that were active in the crucial 2014 elections, when the parties battled fiercely over control of the U.S. Senate.
Republicans won, and the new documents prove Crossroads’ influence was far larger than the public knew.
Crossroads GPS gave $5.25 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the behemoth business lobby that spent $35.5 million on the midterm elections, almost all of which supported Republican candidates. Chamber-backed candidates won big.
Scott Reed, the Chamber’s senior political strategist, was not immediately available to comment on the Chamber’s relationship with Crossroads GPS. A spokeswoman for the Chamber declined to comment.
Crossroads GPS gave $2 million to the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based group that spent about $3 million during the 2014 elections on House and Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, another “social welfare” nonprofit on the Crossroads GPS grantee list, boosted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during his hotly contested re-election bid last year.
Ahead of that election, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spent more than $14 million on advertising — and accounted for about one of every seven TV ads in the contest. Most of the group’s ads praised McConnell and his support for Kentucky’s coal industry, or criticized McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who ultimately lost the race.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition received $390,000 from Crossroads GPS.
Reached by the Center for Public Integrity, Scott Jennings, a spokesman for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, declined to comment.
Not so ‘diverse’
The fact that Carolina Rising received nearly all of its money from Crossroads directly contradicts what Dallas Woodhouse, now the head of the state Republican Party, told the Center for Public Integrity in a November 2014 interview.
In November, Woodhouse said Carolina Rising was funded by multiple donors, and the organization had “a large, diverse donor body.”
He did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the Crossroads GPS grant, or questions from the Center for Public Integrity regarding the apparent contradiction with his earlier comments.
He has said Carolina Rising spent roughly $4.7 million on the Tillis ads, or roughly all its money. In addition, he has repeatedly described the ads as nonpolitical issue ads because they didn’t explicitly tell voters to vote for or against anyone.
Revenue at Crossroads GPS jumped to more than $69 million in 2014 from a low of about $3.4 million in 2013, a non-election year.
Spending soared, too, from slightly more than $4 million to nearly $66 million.
Crossroads GPS reported receiving 80 contributions of $5,000 or more during 2014, including one for $20.6 million and another for $14.5 million.
The group spent more than $13.6 million on grants to other groups, all described as for the purpose of “social welfare.”
In response to a request for comment on the grants, Crossroads GPS spokesman Ian Prior said they were not made for political purposes.
“We made grants to other non-profit organizations to promote the (c)4 mission of Crossroads GPS,” he said in an email. “We are confident based on our written agreements with each one of those non-profit organizations that our grants were used for the non-political purposes that they were given.”
Michael Beckel contributed to this report.
The pharmaceutical drug lobby is among the donors to a secretive nonprofit group that is backing the presidential bid of Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, according to a new tax filing obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also known as PhRMA, donated $50,000 last year to America Next, a think tank formed by Jindal and his allies in the fall of 2013 and used to support his 2016 presidential bid.
Such nonprofit groups that support a single political candidate are becoming increasingly prominent in elections since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision— doing everything from helping develop policy to sponsoring advertising blitzes. Unlike candidates’ own campaign committees, political parties or super PACs, they are generally not required to publicly reveal their donors.
Tax filings offer a rare glimpse of the money flowing into these groups because the donor groups must disclose the grants they make.
Sid Wolfe, senior adviser at the consumer group Public Citizen’s health research project, said PhRMA likely made the contribution to the pro-Jindal America Next nonprofit because they “think they are going to get their money’s worth.”
“You don’t give away money because you don’t think it’s going to have any influence,” he continued.
Neither representatives of PhRMA nor America Next immediately responded to requests for comment.
For its part, America Next — which is organized as a "social welfare" nonprofit under sec. 501(c)(4) of the tax code — raised $2.4 million during its first year of existence.
The group was used to develop policy proposals regarding education, defense, energy and health care issues. Jindal is now promoting those same proposals on the website of his official presidential campaign.
A former Rhodes Scholar and two-term congressman, Jindal has long been a health policy wonk. He once served as the secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals and was a top adviser at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration.
Jindal’s health plan would entirely repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law and grant more powers to the states to implement their own policies.
Before Jindal officially announced his presidential bid in June, America Next paid for him to travel extensively to promote his policy plans.
Then, in July, America Next, launched an advertising campaign touting Jindal. The TV ads cost more than $340,000 according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
America Next has been one of three pro-Jindal groups to take to the airwaves on his behalf, according to data from advertising tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG, which monitors broadcast and national cable ad buys.
Jindal’s own campaign — which has struggled to catch fire in the GOP presidential race — has only raised about $3.7 million and has not yet aired any of its own TV ads.
Government watchdogs say nonprofit groups like America Next can serve as a way to help keep struggling candidates afloat — all the while offering special interests another way to curry favor with them.
“This is one way for them to gain access and continue building a relationship with a politician,” said Richard Skinner, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation.
“This shows why disclosure is so important,” Skinner continued. “There’s a lot of stuff going on that we don’t know anything about.”
This story was co-published with TIME.
Nov. 19, 2015: This story has been updated to include comment from U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Texas.
Buried deep within a massive transportation bill that passed the House of Representatives is a little-noticed provision that won’t have much effect on highway projects, but is of great interest to automobile dealers.
The provision, an amendment offered just before midnight on Nov. 11, would allow dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they are subject to safety recalls. Rental car companies, meanwhile, don’t get the same treatment under the proposed law.
In essence, the amendment would allow an auto dealer to loan you a vehicle under active recall while you are getting your own fixed for the same defect.
The man who offered the amendment is no stranger to car dealerships. In fact, that’s his business. Rep. Roger Williams, a Texas Republican, sponsored the amendment. In introducing it on the floor of the House, he noted, “I am a second-generation auto dealer. I have been in the industry most of my life. I know it well.”
The possibility that his action might be considered a conflict of interest was apparently not on his mind, though it certainly occurred to others.
“It seems to me that if it isn’t illegal, if it isn’t an ethics violation it ought to be,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a consumer group. “His amendment benefits nobody but car dealers. And he’s a car dealer.”
The rental car provision in the legislation, which is also in the Senate bill, was spurred by the deaths of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, ages 24 and 20. The two sisters were killed in 2004 while driving a rented, recalled vehicle that caught fire and crashed head-on into a semi, according to consumer groups that have backed the rental car proposal.
Williams’ amendment would make the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision exists in the Senate bill.
The amendment received little attention in the press, which may have been due to the late hour it was offered.
“It was the House floor, almost midnight, there was hardly anyone there,” said Shahan. It passed on a voice vote.
Speaking in favor of the amendment on the floor that night was another auto dealer, Rep. Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican who sells Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Hyundais and KIAs in Butler.
“There is not a single person in our business that would ever put one of our owners in a defective car or a car with a recall,” he said.
In an emailed statement, Kelly said as chairman of the House automotive caucus he is "always proud to advance a legislative agenda that encourages a competitive and innovative automotive sector that employs millions of Americans.This often means weighing in with my personal expertise on relevant bills, regulations, and, in this case, amendments."
According to Williams’ congressional biography, he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves but after an injury ended his sports career he “decided to trade in his baseball uniform for a suit and tie” and become a car dealer. “More than forty years later, Williams still owns and operates his car dealership,” it reads.
Williams is chairman of Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM SRT in Weatherford, Texas. In his remarks on the House floor, Williams said the bill was bad for small businesses.
“Vehicles would be grounded for weeks or months for such minor compliance matters as an airbag warning sticker that might peel off the sun visor or an incorrect phone number printed in the owner’s manual,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California didn’t agree with that reasoning, however.
“This is ridiculous. NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) does not issue frivolous recalls,” she said. “All safety recalls pose serious safety risks and should be fixed as soon as possible.”
Members use the House “Code of Conduct” in guiding their actions. One section appears to be relevant. A member can’t receive compensation where “the receipt of which would occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from the position of such individual in Congress.”
The House ethics manual states that “whenever a Member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect his or her personal financial interests,” he or she should contact the House Ethics Committee for guidance.
A spokesman for the House Ethics Committee declined comment.
(Update, Nov. 19, 2015, 3:06 p.m.: Williams, in a statement released after publication of this story said: "Dealers should not be forced to ground vehicles for a misprint or a peeled sticker. To suggest my amendment allows me, or anyone in my industry, to intentionally loan a dangerous, defective car is a damning assertion."
The congressman said members should be able to use their business knowledge in their jobs on Capitol Hill. "Are Members of Congress who are doctors engaged in conflicts of interest when they vote on Medicare, Medicaid or NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding?" he asked.)
The Senate and House have both passed six-year transportation bills and a conference committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to iron out any differences. The auto dealer loophole will almost certainly be part of the discussion.
A final bill isn’t expected for some time. A new deadline for passage, initially Friday, was extended by the House to Dec. 4.
This story was co-published with the Texas Tribune.
Democratic Party-aligned “dark money” powerhouse Patriot Majority USA collected half of the $30 million it raised last year from five anonymous donors, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of a new tax filing from the group.
Patriot Majority USA was a major player in the Democrats’ failed bid to retain control of the U.S. Senate last year — a time when many Democratic candidates decried the influx of “dark money” in politics.
Led by Craig Varoga, a staunch ally of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., it was a particularly prolific force on television.
The group aired more than 15,000 TV ads in key Senate races, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data provided by advertising firm Kantar Media/CMAG, which monitors broadcast and national cable TV ads. Not a single one was positive.
In all, 40 percent of the $34 million Patriot Majority USA spent in 2014 went toward “direct and indirect political campaign activities,” according to the group’s new tax filing— nearly $13.7 million.
But like other “social welfare” nonprofit groups organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the tax code, Patriot Majority USA is not required to publicly disclose the names of its donors.
Thus, it’s largely unknown who funded its political operations, which proved generally unsuccessful as Democratic incumbents lost in races across the country, including Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, where the nonprofit group was the most active.
Such opacity contrasts with many Democrats’ rhetoric decrying secret money in politics and organizing to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling, in part, freed certain nonprofit groups to spend massive amounts of money on politics while withholding information about their contributors.
The biggest donor to the nonprofit gave $8.25 million, according to the new filing with the Internal Revenue Service, which lists the amounts received by Patriot Majority USA last year but not the donors’ names.
Six other unknown donors gave seven-figure sums. One gave $2.7 million. Another gave $2.2 million. One gave $1.2 million. And three gave $1 million.
About three-dozen other donors gave at least $100,000.
Other government filings indicate that some of Patriot Majority USA’s financial support came from labor unions.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for instance, gave Patriot Majority USA $750,000 in 2014, according to documents it submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Meanwhile, in its own Department of Labor filings, the American Federation of Teachers states it gave Patriot Majority USA $550,000 last year.
Filings further show that the National Education Association gave Patriot Majority USA $50,000 last year and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters gave $10,000.
Campaign finance filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission also show that Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC contributed about $35,000 to Patriot Majority USA last year.
In the past, Patriot Majority USA has also received money from trade groups such as the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare and the American Health Care Association.
Varoga, in an emailed statement, defended Patriot Majority USA’s work.
“Our c4 has been recognized by the IRS and has a very well defined, multi-year, bipartisan primary purpose, which is to work on economic solutions and encourage job creation throughout the United States,” he wrote. “The political work that we do is secondary to the larger economic mission of the Patriot Majority Action Plan.”
Patriot Majority USA’s significant spending on elections in 2014 drew fire from political observers on both the left and right.
“Under current law, that is unfortunately what is allowed, so groups on both sides of the aisle do what is allowed,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of consumer group Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.
“It’s part of the reason why we need to fight to change the rules,” Gilbert continued, noting that her group has supported a push for the IRS to adopt more stringent rules on how much electoral activity such nonprofits can engage in. “Until we do so, money will flow in the directions it can.”
Conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell — who vehemently disagrees with Public Citizen’s call for new limits on nonprofits’ political spending — also criticized Varoga’s group.
“I don’t have an objection to an organization spending 40 percent of its money on political activities,” Mitchell said.
“What I do object to is the hypocrisy,” she continued. “Democrats are total hypocrites on all of this.”
The TV ad wars have intensified in Louisiana ahead of final runoff elections Saturday for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, education board and several legislative seats.
Though U.S. Sen David Vitter was initially the frontrunner in the race to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, he has been dogged by links to a notorious prostitution scandal. The Republican acknowledged his mistake in a TV ad that has aired more than 1,000 times in Louisiana during the past week.
In the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in France, Vitter also pivoted and began airing an ad saying he would deny Syrian refugees entry to the state if elected governor.
But his opponent, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, has outspent Vitter on ads since the primary by an estimated $450,000 as he tries to return the governor’s mansion to Democratic hands after eight years of Republican control under Jindal.
Edwards was the top vote-getter in the Oct. 24 gubernatorial primary. Under Louisiana’s open, or “jungle,” primary system, voters select their preferred candidate regardless of party. If no candidate tops 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff.
As Edwards and Vitter make their final appeals to voters, four independent political groups have spent nearly as much as the candidates on their own ads since the primary.
Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data current through Nov. 16.
Two Republican governors are copying an unusual tactic from President Barack Obama’s political playbook: using pet political groups seeded by donors to push policies, not just candidates.
Political organizations tied to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Florida Gov. Rick Scott are diverging from the typical so-called leadership PACs used by federal lawmakers and some governors to amass power because they are not just giving campaign contributions to like-minded legislators. Instead they are pushing the governors’ legislative agendas with public campaigns far removed from the campaign trail.
The Rauner and Scott groups resemble that of another prominent chief executive facing resistant lawmakers: Obama’s Organizing for Action, a nonprofit formed from his former presidential campaign committees. The group has advocated for Obama’s legislative priorities, such as the Affordable Care Act.
At a time when money drives politics, these efforts offer a new way for wealthy outsiders and special interest groups to influence not just who is elected to office but actual policies.
“This just seems like another extension of how big money has become so much more prevalent in the process,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he works with the Institute for Legislative Studies.
Meanwhile newly formed groups in other states have announced that they, too, intend to support their respective governors’ policy priorities. They may follow the lead of the Illinois and Florida groups, with 2016 legislative sessions just around the corner.
Shortly after Rauner took office this year, Illinois political groups linked to the Republican governor began airing TV ads and sending out postcards criticizing longtime Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan as the state Legislature was gearing up for a vote on the state budget.
“Mike Madigan and the politicians he controls refuse to change,” the voiceover in a TV ad warns. “They’re saying 'no' to spending discipline, 'no' to job-creating economic reforms, 'no' to term limits. All they want is higher taxes. Again.”
It appears to be a typical campaign ad, except that it aired roughly seven months after Rauner and Madigan were both elected, and nine months before primary voters could next be asked to turn Madigan out of office. At the end, Rauner, speaking directly to the camera, doesn’t ask viewers to vote for or against anyone.
Illinoisans aren’t the only ones with front-row seats to these sorts of ads. In March, just four months after Scott’s re-election, a Florida group tied to the Republican governor called Let’s Get to Work began airing ads promoting Scott’s proposed $500 million in tax cuts.
More similar campaigns may be on the way. In February, a former legal adviser to Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley started a nonprofit called the Alabama Council for Excellent Government with a stated purpose of supporting the Republican’s agenda. And in June, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, unveiled the Rebuild Pennsylvania political action committee and seeded it with $50,000 of his own money. These two groups do not yet appear to have begun public campaigns.
To be sure, governors have used their own political action committees for years to back the campaigns of legislators who agree with them. Current iterations include Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC, Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s Susana PAC and Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s recently created Relentless Positive Action PAC.
But ads like those in Illinois and Florida appear to be unconnected to any elections. Rather, the ads are a way for the governors to boost their images and to put public pressure on their legislatures to pass their agendas, according to Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
“The reason we haven’t seen these sorts of things before is that we haven’t had such wealthy governors,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “Just as these governors used their assets to get where they are, they are using them now to further their agendas.”
Rauner, who made a fortune in private-equity investments before running for governor, gave his campaign more than $38 million. The campaign account then used leftover money to push for some of his policies once in office.
And in April, two of Rauner’s former aides launched Turnaround Illinois, a state-registered political group that can accept unlimited contributions. The organization almost immediately received $250,000 from Rauner himself.
In 2010, when Let’s Get to Work was first established, the group received $12.8 million from a trust in Scott’s wife’s name. This money helped pay for the group’s ads supporting Scott’s 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns.
“It’s like electing one of the Koch brothers to be governor,” Redfield said.
The money backing them doesn’t just come from their own wallets, though. Rauner’s campaign attracted millions from Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein, the CEO of shipping materials giant Uline. Turnaround Illinois immediately raked in $4 million from Chicago real estate developer Sam Zell.
In 2015 alone, Let’s Get to Work received $200,000 from Jeffrey Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, and $100,000 each from Palm Beach multimillionaire Lawrence DeGeorge and Tampa businessman Daniel Doyle Jr. Top contributors to the group so far this year also include the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts.
Let’s Get to Work and Turnaround Illinois can accept lofty sums because the laws in both states allow unlimited contributions to these specific types of political groups.
“If the state has a $5,000-per-donor limit to a gubernatorial candidate and you can turn around and give $100,000 or $300,000 to a so-called independent PAC that in reality is closely tied to an office holder, that becomes a dangerous vehicle for influence,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign finance reform group Democracy 21.
If the donors behind these groups lobbied legislators directly on state budgets or other policies, they would have to report their activities under the state lobbying rules.
Using such groups may also help obscure where the money is coming from and where it is going. Turnaround Illinois is able to bypass state laws requiring the group to quickly disclose its donors’ names and the details of its spending thanks to an affiliated, Washington-based nonprofit, Turnaround Illinois Inc.
State records show that Turnaround Illinois, the state-based committee, gave $1.5 million to Turnaround Illinois Inc. on June 12, four days before the first ad hit the airwaves, according to media tracker Kantar Media/CMAG.
What the Washington-based nonprofit does with that money, as well as the details of any other money it raises and spends, will remain a mystery until the group files its first report due to the Internal Revenue Service in 2016. However, Federal Communications Commission records indicate that the Washington-based arm paid for at least some, if not all, of the ads that ran in June.
Representatives of Let’s Get to Work and Rauner's office did not respond to requests for comment. Turnaround Illinois and Scott's office declined to comment.
Rauner and Scott also share the fact that they never held public office before reaching the governors’ mansions. This background may be part of the reason why these governors have taken this new approach to policy making, Smith said.
Smith contrasted Scott with current GOP presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush who served in various roles in Florida politics and government, then, as governor, acted as a mentor to then-Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Bush “had full access to the Legislature and had personal relations with these members,” Smith said. “That’s really not the case with Rick Scott.”
These political groups aside, these governors may still employ more traditional political tactics, too.
“They’re still going to have their legislative liaisons who are putting pressure on the leadership,” Smith said. “They’re still going to be meeting with the leadership directly.”
After all, there’s no guarantee that the ads and mailers will sway public opinion the way the sponsors intend. Rauner and Illinois’ legislative leaders remain mired in a budget stalemate as of publication of this story.
“When you’ve got the kind of money that the governor has, both in his own fund and that he can command … then if it doesn’t turn out to be particularly effective, you can give the money back and go in a different direction,” Redfield said. “This is not about diverting scarce resources.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid lambasted secret political cash when he appeared last week in a video filmed and produced by a liberal advocacy group.
“Working families can’t compete with billionaires,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in the ad that also featured another liberal luminary in Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “Let’s stop the flood of dark money into our political system and do it now.”
One catch: The group behind the video, a nonprofit called American Family Voices, doesn’t generally reveal who funds its operations — although a Center for Public Integrity review of Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor records indicates large unions, environmental interests and a major corporate retail lobbying group have this decade provided it with six- or seven-figure contributions.
American Family Voices has in part used this money to sponsor ads and videos trolling conservatives and tackling prickly political issues from immigration reform to credit card fees. American Family Voices also spent $10,000 last year on campaign ads attacking now-Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, without disclosing its funders as is required of candidate committees — and even super PACs. To anyone watching these messages, it isn’t readily evident who their bankrollers are.
The situation is emblematic of liberals increasingly complicated, if not tortured relationship with “dark money” — shorthand for the potentially limitless cash used by certain nonprofits, which aren’t required to disclose their donors, to either promote or pummel political candidates.
It also may refer to secret funds used to push broader political influence campaigns.
While conservative nonprofits continue to dominate liberals the dark money game — most notable is the network tied to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch — a smattering of left-leaning organizations have also traded in the same kind of tough-to-trace political cash, particularly the kind uncorked by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision nearly six years ago.
Take Patriot Majority USA, run by longtime Reid ally Craig Varoga.
The liberal dark money juggernaut spent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than $10.1 million last election on ads bashing Republican candidates for the U.S. House and Senate. During the 2012 election, Patriot Majority USA spent nearly $3.5 million against Republican Sen. Dean Heller — Reid’s Senate counterpart from Nevada’s congressional delegation who Reid actively campaigned against.
Many Democrats argue that they have no choice but to fight fire with fire, using the same political weapons federal law has allowed Republicans to arm themselves with. Prominent Republicans scoff at the notion.
“Harry Reid’s hypocrisy knows no bounds,” Kevin McLaughlin, deputy executive director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the Center for Public Integrity after viewing American Family Voices’ latest video. “The best way to ‘stop the flood of dark money into our political system’ would be to stop raising dark money.”
Asked about American Family Voices’ own financial transparency, and Democrats’ dark money dealings in general, Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman offered a one-line statement: “We believe in reforming the rules for everyone.”
Mike Lux, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who’s led American Family Voices since early last decade, notes that most of his organization’s messages aren’t intended to sway the outcome of a political election — as those released by many conservative nonprofits are. Rather, American Family Voices’ ads target federal policy debates.
Lux doesn’t believe his organization, which he described as a “home for special projects and coalition work for progressive causes,” is hypocritical on dark money, either.
“You can strongly support changing the law as we do but still operate in the environment that everyone is in — and that the law has made exist,” he said. “I confess to this dynamic. But I’m still going to play by the rules in front of me.”
American Family Voices’ anti-secret money video from last week specifically renews many liberals’ standingrequest of President Barack Obama to sign an executive order forcing government contractors to disclose their political spending.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, used his featured moment to criticize the lack of transparency surrounding “so-called ‘issue ads’” — the kind American Family Voices has previously produced.
One of American Family Voices’ more prominent issue ad campaigns came in 2011, when it produced a series of ads urging viewers to call any of dozens of different congressional members and ask them to support bank interchange swipe fee reform.
The ads flashed a disclaimer at their ends: “Paid for by American Family Voices.”
That’s technically true. What the ads don’t reveal, however, is that the Retail Industry Leaders Association, an Arlington, Va.-based trade lobby that represents some of the nation’s largest retail corporations, funded the funder. Tax filings indicate the trade group gave American Family Voices a $1.33 million grant in 2011 — about 75 percent of American Family Voices’ income for the year.
Retail Industry Leaders Association was a leading advocate for swipe fee reform — hardly an issue imbued in most Americans’ minds. But it’s one that stood to save retailers billions of dollars by corralling fees they pay to banks when customers use credit and debit cards.
Lux said “very unusual circumstances” — specifically, shared policy interests among some consumer groups, corporate titans and liberal activists — led to American Family Voices’ relationship with the retail organization, which counts executives of Dollar General Corp., Target Corp., Coca-Cola Refreshments, Petco Holdings Inc., Best Buy Co. and JCPenney among its board members.
It wasn’t, however, a one-off circumstance: The Retail Industry Leaders Association’s latest tax return, filed this week with the IRS, showed it gave American Family Voices $140,000.The retail group also gave money in 2014 to politically active conservative nonprofits, such as the Charles and David Koch-supported 60 Plus Association, a conservative senior citizens advocacy organization that Democrats routinely vilify.
Like in 2011, the retailers supported American Family Voices in 2014 “because we had a common perspective on issues related to consumers, businesses and communities,” said Brian Dodge, the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s executive vice president for communications and strategic initiatives.
U.S. Department of Labor records also show that the AFL-CIO, one of the nation’s most prominent labor unions, gave American Family Voices $130,000 in late 2013. In the filing, the union described the contribution as “support for strengthening America’s middle class.”
Lux explained that the funding went toward producing “test videos” about immigration reform. American Family Voices did produce two immigration-related ads in late 2013 targeting then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
“They wanted to test a message, and they wanted a neutral name of an organization instead of the AFL’s name,” Lux said.
American Family Voices did, last decade, voluntarily reveal that it received significant money from labor sources.
Other recent American Family Voices donors include The Partnership Project, a coalition of 20 environmental groups operating as a nonprofit charitable organization. It gave American Family Voices $328,660 sometime between mid-2010 and mid-2011, a federal tax filing shows.
The Essex County Community Foundation, which exists to “improve the effectiveness and capacity of nonprofit organizations” in its namesake Massachusetts county, gave American Family Voices $25,000 sometime between mid-2013 and mid-2014, according to the foundation’s latest federal tax filing.
Lauren Windsor, American Family Voices’ executive director, said the group’s 2014 tax return is not yet complete. Details about the group’s latest income, expenditure and cash-on-hand totals, therefore, remain unknown.
But American Family Voices did receive a prominent fundraising boost last year from Warren, one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats and herself an outspokencritic of both big and secret money in politics.
“American Family Voices — God bless you,” Warren said last year at a January 2014 fundraiser in New York City for the group. “You’ve been out there fighting, you’ve been out there shoulder to shoulder. When I try to get something done, I always knew I could turn to you and you’d help make it happen.”
Warren’s U.S. Senate office did not return several phone messages and emails.
“Dark money certainly exists on the Democratic side. There is dissonance” in some Democrats’ messages about it, said Richard Skinner, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in politics.
Asked if American Family Voices would reveal more about its donors going forward, Lux said that’s possible.
“I would definitely consider it, I’d definitely be open to it,” Lux said. “It’s something we’d look at on a case-by-case basis. It just depends on the context. As it is, we’re more open than most [nonprofit] groups.”
Michael Beckel contributed to this report.
A secretive nonprofit group that helped boost Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky during his hotly contested 2014 re-election bid itself raised more money than McConnell’s challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, according to copies of the group’s tax filings obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition raised more than $21 million during 2013 and 2014, including $15 million last year alone, according to documents the group filed this week with the Internal Revenue Service. Most of the money came from just a handful of wealthy — and anonymous — donors.
Grimes, a Democrat, raised about $19 million for her campaign, while McConnell, a Republican, raised about $32 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports. McConnell ultimately defeated Grimes by a comfortable margin.
The pro-McConnell Kentucky Opportunity Coalition exemplifies the expanded role certain types of nonprofit groups are playing in politics following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. That ruling allowed corporations, including some nonprofits that don’t publicly disclose their donors, to spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for the election or defeat of candidates.
Moreover, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition appeared to work closely on behalf of only one candidate — McConnell — a tactic other nonprofits are now mimicking. Among them is the Conservative Solutions Project, which has spent millions of dollars touting Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the Republican presidential primary.
While the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition was a major player in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate contest, voters had little idea who was behind the group, which listed its physical address as a post office box in Louisville, Kentucky.
The group aired more than 12,400 television advertisements, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data provided by advertising tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG, which monitors broadcast and national cable — but not local cable — TV ads. That represented about one in every seven spots during the U.S. Senate race.
According to the new tax filing, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spent $7.6 million on “direct and indirect political campaign activities” in 2014 — about 41 percent of the nearly $18.7 million it spent overall. Advocating for or against candidates cannot be the “primary purpose” of such nonprofit groups.
Not counted in that sum: the nearly $9 million Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spent to “influence policymaking outcomes,” which included numerous TV ad buys praising McConnell for “standing up for Kentucky coal” and fighting back against President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.”
Nor does it include the additional $1.35 million the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition issued in grants to other nonprofit groups active in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race — namely the $1 million it gave to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the $350,000 it contributed to Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit associated with veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove.
Like other “social welfare” nonprofits organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is generally not required to reveal the names of its financial supporters.
It must, however, list the amounts given by big donors. In 2014 alone, three unknown megadonors alone accounted for more than 60 percent of the $15 million the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition raised. The largest donor contributed $5 million. Another gave about $3.4 million. A third gave $1 million.
One known donor to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition? Crossroads GPS, the conservative nonprofit that also received money from the pro-McConnell group last year.
Crossroads GPS told the IRS it last year gave the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition $390,000, as the Center for Public Integrity reported earlier this week.
Other tax records show that the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America contributed $25,000 to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition in 2013. And a recent bankruptcy filing, first reported by the Intercept, indicates that the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has also received an unknown amount of money from Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal companies in America.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition was created in 2008. For years, it offered no indication that it would ultimately morph into one of Election 2014’s most prominent political players. As recently as 2013, it told the IRS its annual receipts did not exceed $50,000.
Last fall, after the group’s massive spending spree helped McConnell win re-election, government watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the IRS to investigate the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.
At the time, Melanie Sloan, then CREW’s executive director, told the Center for Public Integrity that the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition was “nothing more than a sham.”
Scott Jennings, a spokesman for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the past, Jennings has maintained the group’s operations were legal, with much of the advertising having “no connection to any election” and being “of an issue nature.”
A political watchdog is calling for a criminal investigation of three prominent conservatives in connection with their involvement with a “dark money” nonprofit that last month avoided punishment from the Federal Election Commission.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is also suing the Federal Election Commission for failing to act against the now-defunct nonprofit, even though agency lawyers concluded that the group broke the law in 2010.
The so-called dark money group spent most of the $4.8 million it raised on campaign ads —contrary to what it reported to the Internal Revenue Service.
The request for an investigation, dated Monday, names the alleged architects of the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity: William Canfield, now general counsel for pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC CARLY for America; Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Wayne Berman, a senior adviser for Blackstone Group, a global investment firm, who also serves as national finance chairman for presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Berman, Canfield and Reed did not respond to requests for comment.
The Center for Public Integrity reported on the nonprofit earlier this month when the FEC closed its five-year investigation into the group, prompting the public release of 227 pages of legal documents.
Plagued by gridlock, the commissioners decided not to take action against the group, voting 3-3 on whether to pursue sanctions. The deadlock occurred even though lawyers with the federal agency determined the group’s purpose was primarily political — a violation of IRS rules that that state such “social welfare” nonprofits may not make politics their primary activity.
CREW has also filed a lawsuit against the FEC demanding that it reopen and re-examine the case. CREW called the original dismissal “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to the law.”
The watchdog group is asking U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips to determine whether the trio violated federal law by lying to the government about their involvement with the nonprofit, thus obstructing the investigation.
Berman, Canfield and Reed told FEC lawyers during the investigation that they had limited involvement with the nonprofit. Berman, for example, said he offered advice on a “voluntary basis.”
But Michael Mihalke, of political consulting firm Meridian Strategies LLC, told FEC investigators that he — along with Reed and Berman — split a “fundraising commission” of $1.1 million. The money was what remained from a large-scale ad blitz in key 2010 House races.
“It appears that these operatives deliberately misled the government about their role in CHGO to throw investigators off the trail of the organization’s violations of campaign finance law,” argued CREW’s Executive Director Noah Bookbinder in a statement. “If they were telling the truth about their roles to the FEC, how did they end up with all that money?”
The request for an investigation by CREW calls the representations the three prominent conservatives gave FEC lawyers about their role with the nonprofit “blatantly evasive.”
A spokesman for the FEC declined to comment.
A watchdog group has called for the investigation of the actions of an auto-dealing congressman who proposed an amendment that would exempt his industry from a safety requirement.
The amendment, which passed the House of Representatives, was offered just before midnight on Nov. 11. It allows automobile dealers to rent or loan out vehicles even if they are subject to safety recalls. Rental car companies, meanwhile, don’t get the same treatment under the proposed law.
It was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, a self-described “second-generation auto dealer.”
The Campaign Legal Center in a letter sent Monday urged the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics to review Williams’ actions and also recommended changes to clarify House rules concerning recusal and conflicts of interest by members.
The request was prompted by a Center for Public Integrity report posted last week. The story was also posted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Texas Tribune.
“The specific actions of Rep. Williams must be reviewed for compliance with current rules, but even if he did clear his amendment with the Ethics Committee, his actions are a prime example of why the current rules are both too weak and in need of further clarification,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director in a press release.
An email to Williams’ press aide was not immediately returned.
The rental car provision in the legislation, which is also in the Senate bill, was spurred by the deaths of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, ages 24 and 20. The two sisters were killed in 2004 while driving a rented, recalled vehicle that caught fire and crashed head-on into a semi, according to consumer groups that have backed the rental car proposal.
Williams’ amendment would make the act apply only to companies whose “primary” business is renting cars, which would effectively exclude dealerships. No such provision exists in the Senate bill.
Williams is chairman of Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM SRT in Weatherford. In his remarks on the House floor, Williams said the bill was bad for small businesses.
“Vehicles would be grounded for weeks or months for such minor compliance matters as an airbag warning sticker that might peel off the sun visor or an incorrect phone number printed in the owner’s manual,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California didn’t agree with that reasoning, however.
“This is ridiculous. NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) does not issue frivolous recalls,” she said. “All safety recalls pose serious safety risks and should be fixed as soon as possible.”
Williams, in a statement released after publication of the original story said "members should be able to use their business knowledge in their jobs on Capitol Hill.”
Generally speaking, the House Code of Conduct prohibits a member from taking an official action that may benefit his or her financial interest.
The House ethics manual states that “whenever a member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect his or her personal financial interests,” he or she should contact the House Ethics Committee for guidance.
It’s not clear whether Williams did that or not.
There are a number of ways a formal investigation by the House Ethics Committee can get under way. The committee can act on its own, a member can request an investigation, or sign on to a complaint from a non-member, or the complaint can come from the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, non-partisan board.
A spokesman for the committee declined comment.
Members of the House and Senate have formed a conference committee to hammer out differences between the transportation bills, including the Williams amendment. Its status is unclear at the moment, calls to the House Transportation Committee were not immediately returned.
The hope is a final transportation bill will be sent to the desk of President Barack Obama by Dec. 4.
Former New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, for decades one of the state’s most powerful political figures, was convicted of corruption charges on Monday, capping a five-week trial that once again put a spotlight on Albany’s toxic political culture. Silver’s fall is the latest confirmation of widespread ethics problems that helped earn the state a D- in the recent State Integrity Investigation.
Silver, 71, was convicted in federal court of seven counts, including extortion and money laundering, involving millions of dollars in kickbacks he received over more than 10 years. Jurors are still hearing testimony in a separate federal case against former Senate President Dean Skelos, who along with his son was charged with several corruption-related counts in May.
“Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York,” said a statement from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who is behind both cases.
Both trials illuminate many of the core issues responsible for New York ranking 31st in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity; the study was released earlier this month. The Empire State earned failing grades in six of 13 categories, including for its budget process and public access to information. New York also received a D- for its campaign finance system, which includes some of the nation’s highest limits on donations to candidates.
Silver’s conviction stems from nearly $4 million in fees he received for referring cases to law firms in two, unrelated schemes. In one, Silver helped direct state grants to a doctor who specialized in mesothelioma, a disease related to asbestos exposure. In exchange, the doctor referred clients to a law firm that shared its fees with Silver. In the other scheme, prosecutors said Silver helped real estate developers win favorable legislation. In exchange, the developers agreed to direct certain tax work through a law firm with ties to Silver, which again sent the lawmaker a portion of its fees.
At its heart, however, the case revolved around the central question of what a “citizen-lawmaker,” serving in a part-time legislature, should be allowed to do. From the beginning, Silver’s lawyer portrayed his client’s actions as not only legal, but a normal part of government work. In his opening argument, defense lawyer Steven Molo described Silver’s behavior as “conduct which is normal, conduct which allows government to function,” arguing that conflicts of interest are an inherent part of a legislature in which lawmakers are allowed to earn private income. Prosecutor Howard Master countered that Silver’s governing style “wasn’t by the people or for the people.” Instead, he said, “It was by Sheldon Silver for Sheldon Silver.”
The trial brought a harsh spotlight to one of the state’s most powerful political players, Glenwood Management Corp., a real estate developer that has showered politicians with money over the past decade. Glenwood, one of the two developers involved in the case, has been a prominent user of the state’s “LLC loophole,” a quirk in campaign finance law that treats limited liability corporations as individuals rather than corporations, allowing them to give far more money than other companies. The loophole essentially allows donors to create an unlimited number of limited liability corporations and give the maximum amount allowed from each. Glenwood has given millions of dollars to candidates this way.
Glenwood and the campaign finance loophole have played a prominent role in the Skelos trial, too, where witnesses have testified about the importance of the loophole to the real estate industry. Skelos and his son are charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion for allegedly getting Glenwood to direct business to the younger Skelos. Glenwood was not charged in connection with either trial.
As conviction after conviction has befallen New York lawmakers in recent years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature have repeatedly pledged to pass stronger ethics reforms. In April, the legislature passed a reform package including a requirement that lawmakers disclose the names of any clients who pay them or their firms $5,000 or more. Other changes included greater disclosure of independent campaign spending and tighter restrictions against spending campaign funds for personal use. But watchdogs criticized the changes as far short of what the state needs, and said loopholes in the law will allow lawmaker-lawyers such as Silver to continue to hide the names of their clients.
A coalition of advocacy groups has been calling for more substantial reforms, including enhanced campaign finance and personal income disclosures and a strengthening of the state’s ethics commission. In the days after the State Integrity Investigation was published, the groups issued a press release calling on lawmakers and the governor to act immediately, using both the state’s D- grade and the Silver and Skelos trials as rallying cries.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights plans to eliminate several statutory deadlines in an effort to respond more nimbly to complaints and bring the office in line with its counterparts at other federal agencies.
A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released Tuesday would remove deadlines that require the EPA to decide within 20 days whether to accept a complaint for investigation and allow it another 180 days to complete an inquiry. It also would give the agency discretion to require compliance reports from the subjects of those complaints: recipients of EPA funding such as states and cities.
“This is part of a wholesale attempt to lay a new foundation when it comes to the [civil-rights] office,” said Lou Pieh, deputy chief of staff for EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
The office, responsible for investigating environmental-discrimination claims filed by communities of color under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has largely failed at its mission, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. It also processes discrimination complaints lodged by EPA employees.
Of more than 20 federal agencies it surveyed, the EPA said it is the only one that has self-imposed deadlines for processing civil rights complaints. Instead of setting explicit deadlines, the new regulations will require the agency to “promptly” acknowledge complaints and issue decisions.
The change, the EPA said in the rulemaking, will allow the office to “explore the best resolution option for those complaints . . . rather than a cookie-cutter approach that assumes all cases should follow the same approach, resolution strategy, and timeframes.”
The agency is being sued by five community groups over its failure to finish investigating several civil rights claims pending for at least a decade. Critics have expressed concern about the potential elimination of the deadlines, claiming that could make it harder to hold the agency accountable.
Not so, Pieh said.
“We don’t see this as an out,” said Pieh, who serves as a liaison between McCarthy and the civil-rights office. “We are not skirting our responsibility with reference to civil rights laws.”
The Center reported in August that the EPA has dismissed 95 percent of all community claims alleging environmental discrimination since the mid-1990s without providing any remedies to complainants. The series, “Environmental Justice, Denied,” examined how the EPA’s lax enforcement of Title VI has impacted communities across the country, some of which have waited years for the agency to act.
“We can acknowledge that not everything has been perfect in the past,” Pieh said. But the proposed rule, combined with a Strategic Plan released in September, “will allow us to turn the corner,” he said.
The civil-rights office is also training staffers on a new case-management database it will use to track the progress of cases throughout the investigation process.
On Tuesday the agency released an interim case resolution manual to guide investigators’ handling of civil rights complaints. For example, staffers are encouraged to decide within 45 days whether to accept a case for further investigation and to attempt to informally resolve the case within 90 days. If no resolution is reached, a formal investigation would then proceed, according to the manual.
In January, the EPA will hold public meetings in Chicago; Houston; Oakland, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as part of the 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule.
National political groups are bigfooting their way into state elections through ad campaigns, part of a growing trend in which groups independent from candidates or parties are taking a larger role in shaping the narratives of political campaigns.
A Washington, D.C.-based group funneled millions of dollars from a New Jersey teachers union into TV ads about the Garden State’s General Assembly races. A billionaire’s gun safety group broadcast its gun control messages in Virginia legislative races, possibly testing them for 2016. And two large partisan associations obscured their affiliations by funding lesser-known groups with more innocuous names voters would not recognize in the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial races, with mixed results.
In total, 33 outside groups poured more than $32 million into their own political ads this year, accounting for more than one-third of the estimated $86 million in broadcast TV ad spending in the seven states with major races, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
That represents more than 1 in 4 political spots aired, compared with fewer than 1 in 5 ads in both 2011 when the same states had comparable races and in 2014 when major races occurred in 45 states.
“In the past four election cycles or maybe more, there has been a growing nationalization of money in state and local elections,” said Michael Malbin, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington think tank studying money and politics. “People who want to make change in policy are looking increasingly at state and local politics, and there is an increased capacity of these national organizations to raise money and distribute it.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling and other related cases opened the door for such increased power of outside groups by ruling that nonprofits, corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited sums to persuade people to vote for certain candidates.
This is also helping drive up the bill for political campaigning. In 2015, political advertisers upped their game, largely due to heated governors’ races in Louisiana and Kentucky. The combination of candidates, parties and independent groups overall spent approximately $50 million more on TV ads than political advertisers spent in 2011.
Advertisements aired 84,000 more times than in 2011, according to an analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG, which monitors 211 media markets around the country. The figures do not include ads for radio, the Internet, direct mail or TV ads that aired on local cable systems. The estimates also do not include the cost of making the ads.
Controlling the conversation
By spending money, outside groups can change the tenor and the tone of political ad messaging. But more money may not translate to victory.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s prostitution scandal, which first came to prominence in 2007, was brought to the forefront again by the Louisiana Water Coalition, a political action committee funded by a Baton Rouge law firm that battles oil and gas companies. The PAC aired an estimated $840,000 worth of ads starting in September that repeated claims by a former New Orleans prostitute that Vitter had been a regular customer.
It was one of 10 outside groups to enter the Louisiana governor’s race, more than in any other race this year. Combined, the groups spent $9.8 million on TV airtime — almost half of all TV ad spending in the gubernatorial election.
Vitter’s campaign spent an estimated $4.1 million — more than anyone else in the governor’s race — and received a combined $5.5 million in backing from three outside groups. Democrat John Bel Edwards and the groups that backed him spent approximately two-thirds as much as Vitter and his supporters on ads yet Edwards won the Nov. 21 runoff election.
A similar trend emerged in Kentucky, with groups spending $1.5 million more on losers in the state’s races overall.
The Bluegrass State had a particularly competitive and expensive gubernatorial primary, with Republican Matt Bevin narrowly defeating his competitors despite lagging in the polls. In the general election, Kentucky Family Values, a group backed by the Democratic Governors Association, then spent $3.4 million on ads slamming Bevin, contributing to the large total supporting the defeated.
‘Growing nationalization of money’ in states
More than one third of the outside groups are tied to a national entity, whether that be as locally grown groups playing in multiple states or a national giant funneling money into local groups.
Two such organizations trying to seize governors’ seats for their parties, the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association, funded lesser-known entities and PACs in the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial races this year, as they have done elsewhere in the past.
It was a mixed bag for both groups. Each governorship flipped parties: A Democrat won in Louisiana, while the GOP took the Kentucky governor’s mansion.
These giants may route their funds through these channels to put a layer between themselves and the campaign ads. The original donors of the money are then even more insulated from disclosure, according to Malbin.
“Donors will give to intermediary organizations like the RGA with the intention to put a veil over the source of their money,” Malbin said. “The RGA disclosure will show a contribution from a particular donor, but state records will show expenditures from the RGA, not the specific donor names.”
While voters can’t track exactly which funds given to the RGA or DGA went directly to these state races, they can see the overall backers of these organizations. The top donors to the RGA historically include business magnate Sheldon Adelson and Koch Industries’ David Koch. Top DGA contributors include the union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Donors may not be the only names these groups want to disguise, Malbin said.
“I don’t think that an ad that said ‘Paid for by the DGA’ would be as palatable to the DGA’s objective than an ad paid for by an unknown, seemingly local name,” Malbin said. “If they are trying to reach the more independent voter, a partisan label could turn them off.”
The DGA-backed Kentucky Family Values, a group also backed by unions, slammed Republican Matt Bevin — the eventual winner — for not releasing his tax returns.
The national organization also shelled out more than $1.5 million to the anti-Vitter Gumbo PAC in the Louisiana governor’s contest. Gumbo PAC also received backing from trial attorneys, and its director is consultant Trey Ourso, the former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
On the other side, the RGA entered the Kentucky gubernatorial race as the sole funder of Putting Kentucky First with $5.1 million.
It did use its own name in Louisiana, though, with the RGA Right Direction PAC, which spent more than $1.4 million in campaign ads.
Playing lower down the ballot
Another national group, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, poured more than $2.3 million into TV ads about two highly contested Virginia state Senate seats in northern and central districts that could have helped Democrats gain a majority in the chamber. Everytown does not disclose its donors, but the gun control group was founded by Bloomberg, a billionaire.
Everytown aired ads focusing on gun control policies, featuring Andy and Barbara Parker, the parents of Alison Parker, a Roanoke TV journalist gunned down by a former colleague during a live broadcast in August.
“Politicians’ condolences aren't enough,” Barbara Parker said in the ad. “It’s time for them to act.”
In the end, Everytown-backed Democratic candidates didn’t win any new ground: Jeremy McPike won a seat previously held by a Democrat, and Dan Gecker lost a seat previously held by a Republican. Overall, Democrats fell flat without gaining any new seats in the Senate, maintaining the previous 21-19 divide.
While turning the tables would have helped Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe push through his gun control measures, that may not have been the end goal for the Bloomberg group’s ad strategy, according to Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.
“They are probably thinking about how the message of gun control plays in these battleground states deciding who the next president is,” Kidd said. “It’s about changing the narrative of gun control as a losing message to saying it’s a winning message if your district looks like X. They are trying to solve for X, using different messaging techniques in similar suburban precincts.”
A national political group spent about $3.2 million backing Democrats in the New Jersey General Assembly races — more than half of all political ad spending in the state, according to Kantar Media/CMAG — even though most seats weren’t competitive and Democrats already held the majority. Most of liberal-leaning General Majority PAC’s funds came from Garden State Forward, a major teachers union PAC in New Jersey. This flood of money helped Democrats gain three additional seats, bringing their total up to 51 out of 80, the largest majority in 37 years.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative Koch-backed national nonprofit, had more mixed results. It paid for an estimated $40,000 worth of ads for Virginia Senate candidates who lost but spent a “six-figure amount” in the Kentucky governor’s races attacking losing candidate Jack Conway, according to an AFP spokesman. The group also spent a reported $70,000 on ads in a Colorado school board recall, where the members they supported lost.
“National groups may be digging deeper down the ballot because the money may be more valuable the more you go down the ballot,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “However, the Kochs intervened and didn’t win. The [school board members] were recalled, which shows just because you put in the money, doesn’t mean you’re going to win.”
Learn more about six other national groups playing in the 2015 races:
Data reporter Ben Wieder contributed to this report.
This story was co-published with TIME.
In a federal court face-off against the nation’s biggest broadband providers, U.S. government lawyers upholding so-called “net neutrality” rules may enjoy a slight advantage — two of the three judges ruling on the case have shown indications of being sympathetic to the government’s position.
David Tatel, Sri Srinivasan and Stephen Williams, judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, will hear oral arguments Dec. 4 on lawsuits filed against the Federal Communications Commission over its Open Internet Order, or net neutrality rules.
The FCC passed the rules in February. They prohibit broadband providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. from blocking or slowing access to websites and charging higher prices for quicker delivery of content, otherwise known as paid prioritization.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the rules were needed to give, “consumers, innovators, and entrepreneurs the protections they deserve, while providing certainty for broadband providers and the online marketplace.”
But Internet providers, including AT&T Inc., and telecommunications groups such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, whose members include Time Warner Cable Inc. and Charter Communications Inc. have sued the FCC over the rules.
The United States Telecom Association (USTelecom), an industry trade group that represents broadband providers including AT&T and CenturyLink Inc., was one of the first groups to file suit, requesting the court to strike down the rules because it said they violate federal law and are an unnecessary government overreach that will stymie business growth.
Republican members of Congress filed a court brief last month arguing “that whether and how to regulate Internet access are policy questions of such profound significance that they are to be answered only by Congress.” Twenty-nine Democratic members of Congress, led by Rep. Anna Eshoo from California, and Sen. Edward Markey from Massachusetts, filed a brief in support of the FCC’s rules.
But the three-judge panel reviewing the legality of the rules has a decidedly liberal tilt that bodes well for the FCC, those following the case said.
Tatel, whom President Bill Clinton appointed in 1994, is the most notable. He was one of three judges that ruled in 2014 that parts of the FCC’s previous net neutrality rules passed in 2010 were unlawful because the agency lacked the authority to regulate the providers if they weren’t classified as a common carrier such as a phone company.
Srinivasan was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 and is considered by some legal experts to be a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Srinivasan’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was met with minimal fanfare from either side of the political aisle because of his noted equanimity. Many legal scholars said that despite his political constraint he is likely to rule in favor of the FCC.
Williams, who President Ronald Reagan appointed in 1986, is the third judge. Williams has participated in more than half a dozen events produced by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that promotes a strict interpretation of law.
Given the judges hearing the case, legal scholars believe the FCC net neutrality rules have a good chance of surviving.
“I think it will go 2 to 1,” Reed Hundt, FCC chairman during the Clinton administration, said in an interview.
Jim Speta, telecommunications scholar and professor of law at Northwestern University, said in an interview, “My prediction is that the FCC will win.” He added the FCC has “the statutory authority to do what they did.”
When Tatel wrote the opinion for the FCC-Verizon case, Hundt said his message to the FCC was simple: “Do it again or forget about it.” He said Tatel will likely write the opinion for this case as well.
In the FCC-Verizon case, Tatel wrote that the FCC couldn’t classify broadband providers as information services, which are lightly regulated, and then write rules as it did in its 2010 order as if Internet providers were telecommunications companies, which under Title II of the 1996 law can be more heavily regulated.
Reclassifying Internet providers under Title II would give the FCC authority to forbid providers from charging content providers or consumers more to carry their data over faster Internet connections.
When the FCC voted on the latest net neutrality rules, it said in a summary that it wouldn’t regulate providers like traditional phone companies, such as fixing Internet prices or levying taxes and fees.
Other legal scholars said they don’t believe Tatel wrote a roadmap for the FCC’s net neutrality rules, and the court is more likely to vacate the regulations, arguing that classifying Internet services as a Title II telecommunications service is misinterpreting the 1996 law.
The FCC’s “attempt to reclassify internet access service as a telecommunications service represents an impermissible interpretation that conflicts directly with the plain language of the  Communications Act,” wrote Christopher S. Yoo, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has written extensively about telecommunications law.
Yoo submitted an amicus brief in support of USTelecom ahead of the Dec. 4 oral arguments.
No matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, Yoo and other legal experts don’t believe the ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Speta said the Supreme Court prefers to accept cases that have received different and conflicting rulings. Because no other court heard the case before the D.C. circuit court, no conflicting decisions exist, making it unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case.
This week’s tragic shooting in San Bernardino will no doubt result in a sadly familiar Washington debate about the prospects — likely dreary — of new gun control legislation. Much of the back-and-forth will focus on the supposed stranglehold that the National Rifle Association holds over Congress. The group’s fundraising prowess and political power is real, but as this 2013 Center investigation by Alan Berlow revealed, it is somewhat misunderstood.
In the days leading up to last month’s crucial votes on the most significant gun control legislation to come before the Senate in nearly two decades, polls showed that about 90 percent of Americans supported background checks for all gun purchases. But when the clerk called the roll, the centerpiece amendment — requiring background checks for firearm sales at gun shows, through classified ads and on the Internet — got just 54 “yea’s,” six votes short of the 60 vote super-majority required.
Just four months after Adam Lanza killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and President Obama promised tougher gun laws, the vote proved to be the latest in a long-running string of victories for gun rights activists, the firearms industry and particularly the National Rifle Association, the nation’s pre-eminent gun lobby.
The power of the gun lobby is rooted in multiple factors, among them the pure passion and single-mindedness of many gun owners, the NRA’s demonstrated ability to motivate its most fervent members to swarm their elected representatives, and the lobby’s ability to get out the vote on election day. But there’s little doubt that money, the political power it represents, and the fear of that power and money, which the NRA deftly exploits, have a lot to do with the group’s ability to repeatedly control the national debate about guns. Whether that fear is justified is an intriguing question —but it clearly exists. That has, perhaps, never been clearer than it was last month on Capitol Hill.
Big money, big gaps
For starters, the dollars and cents disparities are nothing short of staggering. The NRA and its allies in the firearms industries, along with the even more militant Gun Owners of America, have together poured nearly $81 million into House, Senate and presidential races since the 2000 election cycle, according to federal disclosures and a Center for Responsive Politics analysis done for the Center for Public Integrity.
The bulk of the cash — more than $46 million — has come in the form of independent expenditures made since court decisions in 2010 (especially the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision) essentially redefined electoral politics. Those decisions allowed individuals, corporations, associations and unions to make unlimited “independent” expenditures aimed at electing or defeating candidates in federal elections, so long as the expenditures were not “coordinated” with a candidate’s actual campaign.
“Members of Congress pay attention to these numbers, and they know that in the last election cycle the NRA spent $18.6 million on various campaigns,” says Lee Drutman, who has studied the role of gun money in politics for the Sunlight Foundation. “They know what the NRA is capable of doing and the kinds of ads they’re capable of running, and especially if you’re someone facing a close election, you don’t want hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of dollars in advertising to go against you.”
In the decade before Citizens United, from the 2000 election cycle to 2010, much of the money was donated directly to campaigns. During that period, pro-gun interests so thoroughly dominated electoral spending as to render gun control forces all but irrelevant, having directly donated fully 28 times the amount of their opponents in House and Senate races, $7 million on the pro-gun side compared to $245,000 on the gun control side. Of the total expended by gun rights interests, fully $3.9 million was delivered by the NRA. Since the Citizens United decision, gun control interests have gained new financial muscle, thanks largely to independent expenditures totaling at least $11.6 million by activist New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups tied to Bloomberg — nothing to sneeze at, but still just a fraction of that $46 million in post-2010 gun rights money.
The full story can be found at Gun lobby's money and power still holds sway over Congress.