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    An anonymous online campaign that criticizes a government crackdown on fraudulent Web-based businesses appears to have been developed by the same company that built websites for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other tea party leaders.

    "Stop the Choke" is an online blitz that argues the Obama administration’s efforts to cut off fraudsters from the financial system will kill free markets and take away people’s guns. The site pictures President Barack Obama as a marauding Godzilla to punctuate its points. The Center was first to report on the group this week.

    The name Stop the Choke refers to Operation Choke Point, a government initiative to sue banks that debit people’s accounts illegally on behalf of companies such as online payday lenders, firearms dealers, porn sites and pyramid-style sales schemes where fraud is common. The crackdown has drawn loud opposition from industry groups that fear legitimate companies will be punished for their peers’ misdeeds. 

    The campaign’s website is studiously anonymous. The operators of its Twitter account have ignored multiple public requests for comment. Advocates of transparency in politics say the site is designed to convince visitors that the crackdown has sparked public outrage, but that it was likely created by industries that make money preying on consumers. 

    The site includes dozens of images of Cruz, a Texas Republican and tea party leader. Cruz’s office told the Center that the page “is not affiliated with the senator, and we don’t know who set it up.” 

    Yet the site appears to have been developed by Harris Media LLC, an agency founded by Republican operative Vincent Harris, who masterminds the Cruz campaign’s digital strategy. Harris previously worked for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, another tea party favorite, and Bob McDonnell, the former Virginia governor who was indicted last month on federal corruption charges. 

    Harris did not respond to several requests for comment. 

    Harris uses a unique code in its clients’ websites that allows Harris to monitor how users are sharing the content across social media. The same code is embedded in StopTheChoke.com, as well as dozens of sites associated with tea party candidates and issues. Among them: PersonhoodUSA.com (opposing abortion rights), AllenWestForCongress.com (supporting former Rep. Allen West, a tea party Republican from Florida) and TedCruz.org. 

    The agency links to sites that it built which employ the same code, including one for Dan Liljenquiest, who attempted unsuccessfully to unseat Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012. 

    The same code is used on Harris’ own web site. 

    Using the same code across many sites would allow a developer to track social media statistics for all of the sites using the same account, said Jeremy Flynn, who works in publisher services at ShareThis, the company that assigns such codes. 

    The use of the same code suggests the sites were built by the same group, Flynn said, although there is a remote possibility that the source code was copied by someone else. Either way, he said, the code’s owner can access data about how StopTheChoke.com is being used. 

    StopTheChoke also includes numerous visual elements that mirror Harris’ own site, including a row of static, minimalist icons and a hovering banner in the upper-left that allows readers to sign a petition (on StopTheChoke) or view job listings (on Harris Media’s site). 

    Stop the Choke’s Facebook page offers shareable art of President Barack Obama’s head grafted onto Godzilla’s body, with the caption “Operation Choke Point: Obama Destroying America.” In addition to Tea Party rhetoric, the campaign employs images of puppies, kittens and the elderly, suggesting they all would be harmed if the administration continues squeezing fraudulent businesses by prosecuting their partner banks. 

    As part of Operation Choke Point, the Justice Department has subpoenaed dozens of banks that work with industries including online payday lenders, firearms dealers and porn sites. At least two banks have settled civil charges that they ignored obvious signs of fraud and continued to debit people’s accounts because they could collect big fees for the service. 

     

     

    stopthechoke.comDaniel Wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/daniel-wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/21/14282/tea-party-operative-likely-behind-mysterious-web-blitz

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    Reader reaction to “Big Oil, Bad Air,” a project jointly unveiled this week by the Center for Public Integrity's Jim Morris, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel about the South Texas oil boom and the chemicals released into the air, continues to pour in. Most of it has been positive:

    From a man who recently drove through Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale region on his way to Arizona:

    “I have never seen the scope or intensity of the destruction as I witnessed in that trip. ‘It’s big,’ I said to myself. ‘Why is there no opposition and national attention to this?’ You have answered my question…”

    From a woman from upstate New York:

    “It’s not that I am or ever was against natural gas…I am against people not being informed or empowered to soberly look at our dependence on fossil fuels and what seems to be a strong effort on the part of very powerful players to limit the public’s options to either decrease dependency or move more quickly toward renewables…Thanks for your work, which may very well help a few folks in Texas.”

    From a man in one of the South Texas drilling areas:

    “Thank God for Jim Morris and the Center for Public Integrity. Mr. Morris told our story with honesty and dignity.”

    Not everyone has been complimentary. One man wrote:

    “Frankly, I wish you people would close your doors and go away. The damage you do to the economy under the name of environmental concerns is unacceptable and a problem for our country, not a solution. You are the problem.”

    Wrote another:

    “Hysteria mongers like Ceres, like Bill McKibben, like the Center for Public Integrity…would have our policymakers toss away all of these jobs, reject all of this massive economic impact, and toss aside all the strategic advantages the oil and natural gas boom has brought to this country and its people over the last six years.”

    On Facebook, one man wrote:

    "Keep up the good work... it is very disturbing to read more news about public officials profiting from Big Oil, seemingly to turn a blind eye to dirty pollution and public health hazards. Shame on those complacent public employees... their inaction is harming our health.

    Another woman had this to say:

    "Central Texas as experienced recently along the Interstate is certainly a stinky, torn-up, run-down, price-inflated depressing mess, for sure. I did think that in addition to the stink, the air felt bad to breathe. I was stunned to experience what we'll allow ourselves to go through for a few more gallons of an obsolete fuel source, when I could plainly see the abundant sun and wind all around. Money and short-term thinking sure have hypnotized a lot of people.

    A man wrote:

    "Let's just [stick] our heads in the tar sands and pretend that the oil and gas needs of the world are paramount to our health. This is just crazy.

    And in reference to an investigation of Texas lawmaker's financial investment in oil companies, a man wrote:

    "This should be illegal and all of them should be in jail.

    Fracking activity takes place near a rural home in Dewitt County, Texas.The Center for Public Integrityhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/center-public-integrityhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/21/14286/close-your-doors-and-go-away-readers-react-fracking-investigation

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    Four years ago, the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision remade the rules for how political campaigns are waged.

    Could a Citizens United v. Internal Revenue Service case be next?

    Yes, says David Bossie, the outspoken president of Citizens United — if the IRS enacts plans to restrict how certain tax-exempt nonprofit groups spend their money on politicking, as the agency says it may do.

    "I can commit with certitude that Citizens United will not sit by while any government agency tries to violate our 1st Amendment rights," Bossie told the Center for Public Integrity today. "We have a proven track record of winning, and we're not afraid to take the fight to them. You'll see a Citizens United v. IRS." 

    Bossie added that while it's "too early" to discuss specific legal strategy, Citizens United is willing to "pull out all the stops" to fight any Obama administration effort to pinch nonprofit groups' ability to engage in politics.

    Bossie's assertion comes on a day when Citizens United, a conservative advocacy and media organization, submitted formal comments to the IRS warning the agency to "withdraw" recently proposed regulatory revisions affecting 501(c)(4) "social welfare" nonprofits. Under current law, such nonprofits may advocate for and against political candidate so long as this doesn't constitute its primary purpose and they don’t directly coordinate communications with campaigns.

    Campaign finance reformers have complained about what they see as “hands-off” IRS treatment of some of these groups which they argue are highly focused on politics, not “social welfare.”

    Such nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their donors, have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into federal political races since the Citizens United v. FEC decision allowed corporations — including nonprofit corporations — to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money during elections.

    Conservative nonprofits including Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS and Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity rank among the biggest political spenders, although liberal outfits such as the League for Conservation Voters and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund have also spent hefty sums.

    The IRS' proposed rule changes would define the term "candidate-related political activity" — and prohibit 501(c)(4) groups from engaging in such activity.

    Potentially on the no-no list for 501(c)(4) nonprofits, under the proposed rules changes: airing "issue ads" that feature candidates in the weeks before an election, launching get-out-the-vote and voter registration efforts and disseminating voter guides. Such nonprofits could also be barred, beginning 60 days before a general election, from conducting events at which a political candidate appears as part of the program.

    Campaign finance reform advocates generally consider strict IRS rules on politically active nonprofits essential to ridding U.S. politics of money that can't be traced to its original source.

    But as far as Citizens United is concerned, 501(c)(4) groups' political activity of any sort "falls within being 'social welfare,'" said Michael Boos, the group's vice president and general counsel.

    Boos acknowledged the IRS probably won't concur. If so, he said, Citizens United would be satisfied with the agency offering "safe harbor" to 501(c)(4) groups, which would involve the IRS more narrowly defining what it considers political activity and allowing groups to spend an average of 60 percent of their money or more on "social welfare" activities in order to qualify for tax-exempt status.

    In its formal comments to the IRS, Citizens United further argues that the U.S. Treasury Department and IRS have “usurped Congress’ law making powers because there is simply no statuary authority” for the restrictions its proposing.

    Upon issuing its proposed guidelines in November, the IRS noted that there are "number of steps in the regulatory process that must be taken before any final guidance can be issued."

    The deadline to submit comments on the IRS' proposed changes is Thursday.

    And given the sensitivity of the issue, and the generally slow pace of high-profile regulatory changes of this magnitude, the IRS could take months to reach a final decision. And it’s unlikely any decision would affect the 2014 election cycle, in which Democrats and Republicans are already locked in a bitter — and historically expensive — battle for control of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

     

     

    Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/21/14284/next-citizens-united-v-irs

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    Ushering in what it called “milestone” changes to better protect the nation’s farmworkers from pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency this week proposed a slate of updates to its agricultural Worker Protection Standard.

    The enhanced protections come 22 years after the EPA last revised the rules intended to safeguard the nation’s 2 million farmworkers from pesticides’ perils. Among other steps, the new rules would increase the frequency of mandatory pesticide training from every five years to every year, and include no-entry buffer zones to shield workers from spray and fumes.

    “EPA’s proposal aims to pull farm workers up toward the same level of protection from environmental and health hazards that other professions have had for decades,” Gina McCarthy, the agency’s  administrator, wrote in a blog post titled: A Step Forward: Protecting America’s Farmworkers.

    Farmworker advocates agree the proposal represents a step forward.

    But the long-overdue update falls short of the more sweeping changes advocates envisioned. It fails, for instance, to require medical monitoring of applicators handling toxic chemicals; sets 16, not 18, as a minimum age for those handling pesticides; and eliminates a requirement that growers display in a central location information on pesticides being applied.

    “As expected, there are some genuine improvements, but also at least one big step backward … and some real lost opportunities, especially when it comes to protections for pesticide handlers, and most especially teen pesticide handlers,” Eve C. Gartner, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization, wrote The Center for Public Integrity.

    In 2012, the Center explored the EPA’s thin layer of protection for farmworkers, describing how pesticides can endanger laborers, but no one knows the full scope of the environmental perils in the fields.

    Now, advocates say, the proposed upgrades fail to fully close the safety gap.

    For instance, Gartner and others note, the proposed rule would ban children under 16 from handling pesticides, with an exemption for family farms.

    The EPA lauds that first-ever minimum age requirement as a step forward. But farmworkers and their advocates had pushed for the minimum age to be set to 18.

    The new age limit “is better than nothing but I don’t see justification for wanting to expose 16- and 17-year-olds,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health for Farmworker Justice.

    “Why you would want somebody that young applying chemicals in the workplace is beyond me,” Ruiz said.

    Setting the minimum age at 18 would mean higher costs for the industry, the EPA said.

    “EPA estimates that requiring handlers to be at least 18 years old would cost about $3.1 million annually, or $11 per agricultural establishment and $320 per commercial pesticide handling establishment per year,” the proposed rule says.

    Like others who have long pushed EPA to revise the Worker Protection Standard, Ruiz is heartened that some substantive changes finally came. But, overall, she called the proposal a “mixed bag.”

    Another area advocates question: That the EPA would eliminate a requirement that growers centrally post information about pesticides.

    The posting requirement, the EPA said, has become the single most frequently cited area of non-compliance with the Worker Protection Standard. Industry and regulators have challenged it, the agency said.

    “Keeping the information current at the central location has been problematic for agricultural employers, as records of frequent pesticide applications on an establishment with multiple crops can be difficult to maintain accurately during the growing season,” the EPA wrote.

    “Most workers,” the proposed rules say, “do not routinely pass the central posting area because their workplace is at a different part of the establishment. The proposed change would continue to make available at a designated location pesticide application information for workers and handlers.”

    “Rather than continue a requirement that burdens employers without clear benefits to workers and handlers, EPA has decided to revise the requirement.”

    To the farmworker community, this is a change for the worse. With a central posting place, they say, farmworkers know there is a spot they can turn for information. But now, they say, the burden will fall on farmworkers – many of them working in the shadows – to actively seek out that information.

    “It’s going to be the very rare farmworker who’s going to have the courage to ask for that information,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.

    More than half of the employees at the association, Economos said, are former farmworkers. “We are the community of farmworkers,” she said.

    The EPA’ rationales for cutting the central posting requirement and putting the minimum age to 16 are both “illuminating and disturbing,” Earthjustice’s Gartner said.

    Farmworkers advocates also pushed the EPA to require medical monitoring of applicators who handle toxic pesticides, following the leads of California and Washington. That is not happening, either.

    “Those programs have been around for many years, to much benefit,” said Ruiz. “The fact that they’re in these big agricultural states shows that they are feasible to implement … and are very helpful in helping to prevent overexposure.”

    The EPA cites other reforms, producing a before and after primer showing how the rules will change. The specific changes include:

    • An expanded mandatory posting of no-entry signs for the most hazardous pesticides; the signs prohibit entry into pesticide-treated fields until residues decline to a safe level.
    • A requirement that Personal Protection Equipment (respirator use) be consistent with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards, including fit test, medical evaluation, and training.
    • Measures to improve states’ ability to enforce compliance including requiring employers to keep records of application-specific pesticide information.

    “Today marks an important milestone for the farm workers who plant, tend, and harvest the food that we put on our tables each day,” McCarthy said. “Protecting our nation’s farm workers from pesticide exposure is at the core of EPA’s work to ensure environmental justice.”

    The changes, the administrator said, follow “more than a decade of extensive stakeholder input by federal and state partners and from across the agricultural community including farm workers, farmers, and industry.”

    Florida's Economos cites the “good and bad” of the proposed changes, which will now go through a public comment period before becoming final.

    “We really want to applaud EPA for all the work they’ve done on this. We know it’s been a long time in the making,” she said.

    Economos added, “We’ve been waiting a long time.”

     

    A pesticide plane dusts cotton plants in Lemoore, Calif.Ronnie Greenehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ronnie-greenehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/21/14287/long-awaited-epa-pesticide-protections-mixed-bag-farmworkers

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    One of the great hopes of health care reform is that it will reduce the number of Americans who file for bankruptcy because of medical debt. A new study in Massachusetts is providing evidence that the reform law passed in that state in 2006, and which served as the model for the Affordable Care Act, is indeed making a significant dent in bankruptcy filings.

    The study, conducted by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, found that the Massachusetts reform law, often called RomneyCare after then GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, has reduced personal bankruptcies in the state by 20 percent.

    In no other country in the developed world is medical debt a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. But in the U.S. it is the leading cause, a phenomenon even FOXBusiness News highlighted in a report last week.

    Citing a 2013 study by NerdWallet Health, an online service that helps people make more informed health care decisions, FOX reported that unpaid medical bills were the number one cause of bankruptcy filings in this country, surpassing both credit card and mortgage debt.

    Fox quoted bankruptcy lawyer Mazyar Hedayat as saying that, “Starting in about 2007/2008, medical expenses went from being a primary component of a lot of cases to becoming the dominant factor.”

    The NerdWallet Health study findings were consistent with previous research conducted by the Commonwealth Fund and other organizations. A study released in 2008 by the Commonwealth Fund found that an estimated 72 million Americans between the ages of 19 and 64, or 41 percent, said they had trouble paying for medical care in 2007. That compared to 58 million, or 34 percent, just two years earlier.

    The Federal Reserve of Chicago researchers found that the Massachusetts reform law, which reduced the rate of uninsured residents from 8.4 percent in 2006 to 3 percent in 2012, has helped in many ways to improve the financial well-being of Bay Staters. In addition to reducing bankruptcies, the law also helped improve credit scores and reduce overall debt.

    “We find that the Massachusetts reform improved financial outcomes across many dimensions,” Federal Reserve researchers Bhashkar Mazumder and Sarah Miller wrote. “It improved credit scores, reduced delinquencies, lowered the fraction of debt past due and reduced the incidence of personal bankruptcy.” Reduction in large delinquencies of over $5,000 was “particularly pronounced,” they wrote.

    The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch quoted MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber as saying that the Federal Reserve study supported similar findings in other parts of the country. He cited a report in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that showed “enormous reductions in financial stress” among Oregon residents who became insured after the state broadened access to coverage in 2008.

    One of the ways that both the Massachusetts reform law and the Affordable Care Act can benefit family finances is that they both limit the amount of money folks have to spend out of pocket if they get sick or injured. Under the Affordable Care Act, for example, the maximum out-of-pocket limit for any health plan offered on the state and federally operated health insurance exchanges is $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family.

    While that’s still a lot of money for the majority American households — median household income in this country was just $51,371 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — it still represents a significant improvement. Prior to the ACA, insurance companies were able to sell policies that had no out-of-pocket maximums. I saw policies when I was in the industry that had $50,000 annual family deductibles. Insurers can no longer market health plans with such exorbitant out-of-pocket requirements.

    While the reforms enacted in Massachusetts and Washington are helping, other researchers, including Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, professor of public health at Hunter College in New York, warn that the laws will by no means end medical bankruptcies. Woolhandler and her fellow researcher Dr. David Himmelstein, both advocates of a single-payer health care system and founders of Physicians for a National Health Program, have done significant research on medical debt. Woolhandler has expressed concern that while the ACA will reduce the number of people without insurance, it might increase the number of people who are under-insured. That’s because many people likely will enroll in plans that have relatively low premiums but high deductibles. Even with the out-of-pocket caps under the ACA, many folks will still rack up medical debt if they get seriously sick or injured.

    Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve research is encouraging. “These results show that health care reform legislation has a strong effect not just on health and the use of health services, but across many measures of household well-being,” the researchers concluded.

    That’s a big step in the right direction.

    Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, shakes hands with Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Timothy Murphy after signing into law a landmark bill designed to guarantee that virtually all Massachusetts residents have health insurance.Wendell Potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/wendell-potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/24/14283/new-fed-study-says-health-reform-can-reduce-financial-stress

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    Coal miners sick with black lung disease should receive higher-quality medical reports and have a better chance to win benefits cases following a series of reforms announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

    The initiatives, effective immediately, represent an attempt by the Labor Department to create a more level playing field for coal miners navigating a byzantine federal benefits system that often favors coal companies and the lawyers and doctors they enlist.

    The changes come months after the publication of the yearlong Center for Public Integrity investigation Breathless and Burdened, produced in partnership with ABC News, which revealed how doctors and lawyers, working on behalf of coal companies, have helped defeat the claims of miners sick and dying of black lung.

    The new measures include a pilot program that would provide some miners with an additional medical report, instructions to government lawyers across the country to intervene in some appeals and increased training for doctors and government officials.

    “We really think this is going to create more balance and fairness,” said Gary Steinberg, the acting director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, which oversees the black lung benefits program. “Our goal is that it will result in an increase in the number of awards because of an increased quality in the reports and quality in the decisions.”

    Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the Labor Department’s initiatives “a step in the right direction,” and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said they were "a good first step toward leveling the playing field.” Both noted, however, that only some miners qualify for them and called for further action.

    Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., said: "While this is certainly an encouraging development, it’s far from what’s needed to ensure these miners and their families receive justice. I’ll continue to push the Department of Labor to make the necessary reforms to get this right.”

    A spokesman for the National Mining Association declined to comment.

    One program announced Monday addresses the first step in the process at which a Labor Department claims examiner evaluates the evidence of disease and issues a decision. Miners are entitled to a medical exam by a doctor from an approved list, paid for by a government trust fund. Claimants then must submit to an exam by a doctor of the coal company’s choosing.

    These reports by the company’s doctors often challenge the initial exam and suggest other possible causes for a miner’s health problems. Under the pilot program announced Monday, the doctor who first saw the miner for the Labor Department will have the opportunity to review and, if warranted, rebut the company doctor’s report. The provision would apply only in some cases, though – those in which the claimant worked for at least 15 years in the mines and initially was found eligible for benefits based on the first exam.

    This new step should provide department officials the information they need to make a more informed decision, Steinberg said. “We hope that we will see fewer appeals, and, if there is an appeal, that fewer of our decisions would be overturned,” he said.

    Now, companies appeal virtually all awards to an administrative law judge. This is often when mining companies develop further medical evidence to challenge a claim.

    To address cases at this level, Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith issued a memo to the offices of all regional solicitors, the government attorneys who can intervene in black lung cases. Often, a miner is unable to find a lawyer because the system offers few incentives for attorneys to take a case.

    Now, in those cases, involving a miner with at least 15 years of experience who won a claims case at the initial stage, a government lawyer will get involved.

    Smith directed the lawyers to go back to the doctor who performed the initial Labor Department-sponsored exam and get a supplementary opinion. Attorneys are supposed to make sure the doctors address the key evidence presented by the company.

    Another obstacle miners face at this stage in the process is a backlog of cases before administrative law judges, who also juggle disputes involving everything from longshore workers to whistle-blowers to immigration. In recent years, the number of judges has dwindled as the number of claims has skyrocketed. Last week, six Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to President Obama imploring him to provide resources in the coming budget to ease the logjam.

    Labor Department officials on Monday also announced measures to help doctors and government officials better navigate the thorny medical issues that arise in many benefits cases. These include increased training for the doctors who perform exams for the department and the officials who evaluate evidence and issue decisions.

    Department officials also said they had reached an agreement to consult regularly with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a research agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As medical trends emerge, government officials will look to the agency, known as NIOSH, for advice on the latest science.

    “What we’re trying to do is strengthen the quality of the evidence in the system without statutory or regulatory changes, just what we can do within the system,” Smith said.

    “Regulatory changes are not off the table," Smith said, "but the department has a full regulatory agenda and we’d have to figure out how to fit something in.”

    The department also has worked with members of Congress who are drafting reform legislation, Smith said. Lawmakers, including Rockefeller and Casey, have been working on a bill to strengthen the benefits system, using the Center’s series as a guide.

    “I firmly believe that we must address the more systematic barriers that too many miners face when applying for and litigating claims under the Black Lung program,” Rockefeller said in a statement Monday. “For that reason, I am continuing to work to make it easier for our miners to get the benefits they need and so obviously deserve.

    “Our work is not over by a long shot.”

     

    A longwall mining machine operator watches as the massive device cuts through a coal seam in a mine near Cameron, W.Va.Chris Hambyhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/chris-hambyhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/24/14289/labor-department-unveils-changes-aid-miners-black-lung-benefits-cases

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    Update, Feb. 25, 2014, 2:23 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a comment from White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

    Under the direction of the American Foreign Service Association, a group of former ambassadors are outlining the "fundamental traits" that are "essential" for diplomats to be successful at their jobs.

    Their report, released this morning, arrives as the Obama administration is facing heightened criticism for naming several campaign fundraisers as ambassadors to nations with which they have little direct knowledge or experience.

    The goal of the new report is to "ensure we have qualified individuals going into these posts whether they are career or non-career," American Foreign Service Association spokeswoman Kristen Fernekes told the Center for Public Integrity. "There's very little guidance on this subject."

    Among the recommended characteristics: Demonstrating integrity, honesty, "an appropriate measure of humility" and "the ability to inspire." Others include possessing an understanding the public policy process and the "culture and language" of the host country, or having "other suitable international experience."

    Earlier this month, nominees for posts in Argentina, Iceland and Norway admitted before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they had never visited the countries which they may soon call home. Afterward, the Washington Postslammed President Barack Obama for using the elite diplomatic jobs as "political plums."

    For generations, presidents have tapped both political allies and professional Foreign Service members to serve as the country's top diplomats abroad. Yet Obama has elevated loyalists and campaign bundlers at a more rapid pace than his predecessors since winning re-election to a second term, as the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported.

    Forty-eight of the 85 ambassadors Obama has nominated since January 2013 have been political appointees, not career diplomats, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

    That's 56 percent, compared to about 30 percent under presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

    Of these four-dozen men and women, 24 political nominees have played pivotal roles in the president's campaign fundraising machine and have collectively raised more than $16.9 million for his committees since 2007 — a figure that almost certainly understates their financial support as campaigns are not legally required to provide details about the sums bundlers raise from their friends, family and associates. (The Obama campaign voluntarily did so but only provided broad ranges, the highest of which was "more than $500,000.")

    Obama campaign bundlers have recently been tapped to represent U.S. interests in some of the world's wealthiest and safest nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and Switzerland.

    The Foreign Service Act of 1980, the most recently adopted law governing the country's diplomatic corps, states that ambassadors "should normally be" career members of the Foreign Service, although "qualified individuals" who are not career diplomats may be selected "from time to time."

    It also states that "contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor" in the appointment of an individual to be an ambassador.

    White House spokesman Eric Schultz previously told the Center for Public Integrity that "being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one."

    In an email today Schultz added: "Our nominees have a mix of sterling academic credentials, years of public service and private-sector experience that make them eminently qualified for the positions to which they were appointed ... We appreciate the report and look forward to reviewing it."

    The American Foreign Service Association's new report was written by a mix of former career and non-career ambassadors, including Charles A. Ray, a retired career diplomat who served as the group's chairman.

     

     

    U.S. Department of StateMichael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/25/14290/what-makes-good-us-ambassador

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    A credit union regulator whose close ties to industry lobbyists sparked an internal agency probe  said Tuesday that his job is “very similar” to serving on the board of a credit union and that regulators must recognize credit unions’ need to take financial risks.

    “In reality we — you and I — are both regulators,” Rick Metsger told an annual meeting convened by the industry’s biggest trade group, the Credit Union National Association, to gather supporters seeking to influence lawmakers.

    Metsger is on the three-person board of the National Credit Union Administration, the agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s credit unions and preventing another bailout of the industry. The agency used $19 billion in taxpayer dollars to prop up the industry after the 2008 financial crisis revealed major gaps in oversight and catastrophic investment decisions by credit unions.

    The Center reported in December that Metsger relied on financial support from credit unions over more than a decade in the Oregon state Senate and pushed pro-industry policies while in office. He worked as a paid consultant for credit unions and their lobbyists intermittently until the month he joined the National Credit Union Administration board.

    Metsger’s close ties to lobbyists and executives are typical of the regulators, lawyers and lobbyists who circulate easily between roles leading the credit union industry, the Center reported.

    The Credit Union National Association is the industry’s main voice in Washington, loudly opposing policies that some regulators believe would reduce the risk of credit union failures. The group wants to slash the regulator’s budget, which would its ability to improve examination and supervision of credit unions. The Credit Union National Association’s  “Government Affairs Conference” in Washington, D.C., draws more than 4,000 attendees and speakers including key lawmakers who work on credit union issues.

    Metsger said Tuesday that he attended the conference “six or seven times” as a credit union representative, “sitting in the same chairs you are sitting in now,” according to prepared remarks. Noting that two former credit union colleagues were in the audience, he called on for Congress to “modernize” laws affecting credit unions. National Credit Union Administration board members have asked Congress to roll back limits on credit unions’ commercial lending and permit other activities currently prohibited because of the financial risks involved.

    “I am also mindful that credit unions must not be so constrained by their regulator, or so risk-averse that they cannot meet the financial needs of their members,” Metsger assured the gathering.

    He added that credit unions should assess their performance based on their service to consumers.

    As the Center detailed in December, Metsger walked directly from his swearing-in ceremony in August to a party thrown by the Oregon lobbyists who had supported his political career. Agency ethics lawyers approved the event, and Metsger paid for his own meal.

    The National Credit Union Administration’s inspector general — an independent, internal watchdog office — said after the Center’s inquiries that it would review the lawyers’ advice to Metsger and the agency’s earlier analysis of any potential financial conflicts. It would also launch a formal investigation if the facts warranted one, the inspector general’s office said.

    Credit unions are bank-like companies that provide financial services for consumers. They were created during the Great Depression to help poor people, but their mission has drifted over the years because of changes by regulators and lawmakers.

    The industry has swelled to 96 million U.S. members and holds more than $1 trillion in assets, but remains exempt from most taxes. The break is expected to cost taxpayers $1.66 billion this year.

     

     

    Rick Metsger, joined board in 2013: Worked as a public relations consultant for a regional lobbying group until weeks before joining the board. Allowed that group to throw a party for him after he was sworn in, on the advice of agency lawyers. Flew back to Oregon less than a month later to meet with the same trade group.Daniel Wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/daniel-wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/26/14291/credit-union-overseer-cozies-industry-execs

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    On Wednesday Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was stabbed three times by an unknown assailant. Lau is reportedly in critical condition. Ming Pao was one of ICIJ’s partners in the Offshore Leaks investigation, and ICIJ director Gerard Ryle made the following statement today in response to the attack.

    The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is horrified to learn of the brutal knife attack on Kevin Lau, the former Chief Editor of our Hong Kong media partner, the Ming Pao newspaper. Our thoughts and prayers are with Kevin and his family, and we remain hopeful that local police will apprehend the perpetrators as soon as possible. 

    While many have speculated about the motives behind the attack, we are not aware of any evidence linking the violence to Ming Pao's reporting partnership with ICIJ on the Offshore Leaks investigation. Such speculation, however, does reflect the real concern and anxiety felt by many in the Hong Kong press corps over continuing threats to press freedom. There is simply no justification for such an attack and it should provoke outrage in all fair-minded citizens. We were proud to work with such a brave newspaper editor on such an important reporting project.

      


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    Two of the tightest races for U.S. Senate in 2012 were in Nevada and Arizona. Republican candidates eked out wins in both states with help from four so-called “dark money” nonprofits.

    Then-Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and incumbent Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada benefited from $3.1 million in spending by the groups. Voters in the states had no idea who was funding the attacks because the organizations were not required to reveal their donors.

    Adding insult to injury for the Democratic contenders, Shelley Berkley in Nevada and Richard Carmona in Arizona, it turns out one of the groups’ nonprofit benefactors explicitly warned them not to spend the money on that sort of politicking.

    The fact that the four nonprofits — Americans for Responsible Leadership, American Future Fund, American Commitment and Americans for Tax Reform — did so anyway, without suffering any apparent harm, shows how little oversight a new wave of political nonprofits have received in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has allowed them to flourish.

    The group that supplied some of the funds for the four groups’ political spending was the Center to Protect Patient Rights — which is basically a mailbox and a bank account. The group, effectively financed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and like-minded conservatives, has acted as a sort of bank distributing cash to political nonprofits.

    Campaign spending not allowed

    In its tax return, the nonprofit Center to Protect Patient Rights notes that it “carefully evaluates the missions and activities of recipient organizations prior to making any grants to ensure that funds are used only for tax-exempt education and social welfare purposes.”

    It adds: “Grants are accompanied by a letter of transmittal indicating how grant funds may be used.”

    But a Center for Public Integrity review of Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission documents shows that the four groups involved in the Nevada and Arizona races received almost $79 million, or most of the $112 million the Center to Protect Patient Rights doled out. What’s more, they spent some of the non-political grants they received on political campaigning. Yet there are no known repercussions.

    Lax IRS rules and weak oversight may be to blame, according to interviews in December with a half-dozen nonprofit attorneys.

    Meanwhile, the Center for Public Integrity also identified three other nonprofits that reported political spending to the FEC in 2012 but denied to the IRS that they spent any money on politics.

    The IRS is mulling whether to beef up its rules on political activity by nonprofits that aren’t required to reveal their donors. “Social welfare” nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4) groups, and 501(c)(6) trade associations have played an outsized role in federal elections since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010.

    That decision allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to spend unlimited amounts of cash supporting or opposing candidates in elections.

    The proposed IRS rules would more clearly define political expenses for social welfare nonprofits, making them less likely to mis-report political expenses to the IRS, and would effectively bar the groups from using social welfare grants on political activity. But opposition to key parts of the proposal from both liberals and conservatives could kill it, at least in its current form.

    Adam Rappaport, senior counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, argues that “dark money” groups should go further by reporting the true sources of funding for their political expenses.

    “The public should know who is paying for political ads that can sway elections,” he said.

    Restricted grants spent on politics

    The Center to Protect Patient Rights and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce are both part of the network of nonprofits backed by the Koch brothers. The groups’ IRS documents say they don’t engage, even indirectly, in political activity.

    But some of the funds they provided to nonprofits apparently were spent on just that.

    The Arizona-based Americans for Responsible Leadership is led by former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, who was listed as the group’s president.

    The organization received 97 percent of its $25.3 million in revenue from a Center to Protect Patient Rights grant, according to 2012 tax returns from both groups.

    That means all but about 6 percent of Americans for Responsible Leadership’s $9.9 million in political spending also came from the Center to Protect Patient Rights' grant. Americans for Responsible Leadership spent nearly $91,000 supporting Flake and Heller’s runs for Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Flake won by a margin of about three percentage points, while Heller won by an even narrower margin.

    Officials from Americans for Responsible Leadership didn’t return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

    The Iowa-based American Future Fund, founded by Nick Ryan, a GOP consultant, received a $49.2 million grant from the Center to Protect Patient Rights and another $13.6 million from Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Freedom Partners, on its tax return, said that its letters of agreement for grants included “express prohibitions or protections against the use of grant funds for electioneering purposes.”

    The combined $62.8 million in grants make up most of the Fund’s $67.9 million in revenue.

    The group spent $26.7 million on political activity and ranked third among social welfare nonprofits for spending in the 2012 federal election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That included about $20 million in spending aimed to oust President Barack Obama and $1.3 million to defeat Heller’s opponent, then-Rep. Berkley. Ryan declined to comment, and Sandy Greiner, a state senator in Iowa who was listed as American Future Fund’s president, did not return phone calls or emails.

    Washington, D.C.-based American Commitment received a combined $11 million in restricted grants from the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Freedom Partners — out of its $11.7 million in overall revenue and assets. That means most of American Commitment’s $1.9 million in political campaign expenses came from those grants.

    The bulk of its political expenses went toward television advertisements for Flake and against his opponent, former U.S. Surgeon General Carmona, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and American Commitment newsreleases.

    Phil Kerpen, president of American Commitment, denied that it used non-political funds for politics, writing in an email that all of the group’s “2012 political spending was from our organization's general treasury and we are in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations” as well as commitments to donors.

    Americans for Tax Reform, led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, received $350,000 from the Center to Protect Patient Rights. It also received $26.4 million for tax “exempt purposes, and not for political expenditures” from Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies as previously reported by the Center for Responsive Politics.

    The two grants comprised most of Americans for Tax Reform’s overall revenue of $31 million in 2012, according to its tax return. (It entered the year with almost $7 million in assets, not including property and equipment.) That year, the nonprofit reported $15.8 million in independent expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, meaning at least some of the political spending was from grant money.

    Americans for Tax Reform spent $320,514 opposing Berkley and most of the rest of its political dollars on competitive U.S. House races.

    Officials from the nonprofit did not return calls or emails requesting comment.

    James Davis, a vice president of Freedom Partners, wrote in an email that the group “places strict standards around all awarded grants, and our grants are fully compliant with the applicable IRS regulations.”

    Officials from the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Crossroads GPS did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

    Donor intent

    Some nonprofit attorneys say the nonprofit grantees could get in trouble for not following their donors’ wishes. A state attorney general, for example, could go after such groups and the IRS could follow suit, said James Joseph, a nonprofit attorney and a partner at Arnold & Porter.

    “The IRS can take away tax-exempt status if a nonprofit violates a non-tax law; so here the IRS might argue the grantee is violating state law relating to donor intent,” he wrote in an email.

    Representatives of several attorneys general in states where the nonprofits are based said it’s possible their offices would look into such an issue.

    “Generally speaking, we’d have concerns about a grantee organization that is alleged to have clearly violated donor intent restrictions,” Geoff Greenwood, communications director for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s office, said in an email, adding that he can’t comment on whether the office is investigating or will investigate a particular organization.

    Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne’s office “would likely look into it” — if a complaint was made and the reason seemed valid, and the office had the jurisdiction and resources, said Stephanie Grisham, Horne’s press secretary.

    A spokesman for Washington, D.C., Attorney General Irvin Nathan declined to comment. The IRS also declined to comment on whether it would take action.

    Odds are the agency won’t, Rappaport said.

    “Even before the IRS scandal, they weren’t particularly aggressive. Since [then], I fear they are very reluctant to take on the harder issues of enforcement,” he said, referring to reports in 2013 that IRS officials singled out tea party and other right-leaning nonprofit groups for enhanced scrutiny.

    Most nonprofits err on the side of caution, said Ronald Jacobs, a partner at Venable law firm and co-chairman of its political law practice. He said he works with trade associations that are careful to use grant money from similar groups on appropriate non-political activity such as promoting “common business interests.”

    No accountability for spending?

    The Center to Protect Patient Rights and Freedom Partners claimed on their tax returns — under penalty of perjury — no “direct or indirect” political activity in 2012.

    Yet 70 percent of the group's $112 million in grants went to four nonprofits that spent some of their social welfare grants on politics. And more than half of Freedom Partner’s grants went to two of those nonprofits and the Center combined.

    “There’s not a lot [of regulation] on how grants are counted right now” said Jacobs said about nonprofits, adding that “there’s nothing that requires the [grantor] to look at how [the money] was actually spent.”

    The Center to Protect Patient Rights notes in its tax return: “The organization does not currently have procedures for monitoring the use of grant funds in the United States once grants are made.” Freedom Partners says in its tax return that it reserves the right to review how grants were spent on a case-by-case basis.

    That said, the IRS may have some tools to hold grantors culpable.

    “If the grantor were to discover after the fact that the grant had been used in violation of the restriction, I’d argue that the grantor would have to at least look into the possibility of trying to get the funds back from the grantee. This approach echoes similar … ‘expenditure responsibility’ rules that foundations are required to use when making [certain] grants,” John Pomeranz, an attorney with Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg law firm, wrote in an email.

    The grantors are ultimately beholden to the IRS for the privilege of not paying taxes, said Gregory Colvin, a principal of San Francisco-based law firm Adler & Colvin. Colvin, a leader on the American Bar Association’s Exempt Organizations Committee from 1991 to 2009, said regulators “can re-characterize as political what the grantor reports on its tax return as non-political, which may have tax consequences …. The grant could become taxable at 35 percent.”

    Also, if the grant’s new use bumps up the grantor’s political spending to the point that it’s the primary activity, the IRS could remove the group’s tax-exempt status and make it subject to corporate income tax.

    Social welfare grants allow grantors a double benefit: They can count the money as social welfare spending, legitimizing their tax-exempt status.

    Meanwhile, the money could go to politically aligned groups that might very well spend the money on politics — all the while the grantor can get a tax break and shield donors’ identities under the auspices being a social welfare nonprofit.

    “Grantors do this so that they don’t have to acknowledge any amount of political activity, so they can [be assured of] retaining their 501(c) status,” Rappaport said. “It’s one part of a broad scheme to keep secret who is funding hundreds of millions of dollars of political activity. CPPR and Freedom Partners act as middlemen in this scheme, yet they’re trying to say they have no part in it.”

    From left: Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., with his wife Cheryl, speaks during an Election 2012 party in Phoenix, and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, left, shares a moment with his wife, Lynne, after speaking to the media on election night in Las Vegas.Julie Patelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julie-patelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/27/14293/nonprofits-spend-money-campaigns-despite-benefactors-warnings

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    Political nonprofits, also known as “dark money” groups, often transfer funds to other political nonprofits, which then transfer funds to other nonprofits, and so on — largely to further obscure where the funds are coming from.

    A lesser-known reason for the money shuffle: It may enable nonprofits collectively to spend more money on politics than would otherwise be permissible.

    This new breed of political nonprofits came about as a result of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. The groups may accept unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, nonprofits and billionaires and spend the cash on ads backing or opposing candidates. And they don’t have to reveal their donors.

    But there’s a downside.

    Internal Revenue Service rules are generally interpreted to mean 501(c)(4) social welfare groups must spend less than half of their money on such political campaigning. (The rest goes for overhead and the broadly defined area of “social welfare.” That can include “issue advertising,” which does not overtly support or oppose a candidate.)

    Transfers are a way to get around that limitation, say tax lawyers.

    Say “Nonprofit A” has $1 million and “Nonprofit B” has $1 million in unrestricted funds. Working separately, the two can only spend a bit less than $500,000 apiece on ads advocating for or against political candidates.

    But let’s say Nonprofit A transfers $500,001 to Nonprofit B for exclusively "social welfare" purposes.

    Nonprofit A spends the rest — $499,999 — on overt political campaigning. Meanwhile, Nonprofit B now has $1.5 million. It spends half of that, a little under $750,000, on politics.

    The end result: Separately, the two social welfare nonprofits spend less than $1 million on political campaigning. Working in concert, they can spend almost $1.25 million.

    That’s what Greg Colvin, a legal expert in nonprofits, calls the “multiplier effect.”

    Another advantage from the transfers is leverage, say tax lawyers that specialize in nonprofits.

    A big nonprofit could give $20 million exclusively for social welfare purposes to a small nonprofit that has just a few thousand dollars in the bank. The smaller nonprofit could then go to donors and make the case that every dollar raised will be used to elect or defeat a specific candidate — up to $20 million, minus a penny.

    “When one 501(c)(4) gives a grant for social welfare, it boosts the ability of the other to raise money for political campaigning,” Colvin, a principal at San Francisco-based law firm Adler & Colvin, told the Center for Public Integrity.

    In addition, social welfare grants can also help nonprofits pay for overhead, salaries and other expenses, freeing up other revenue for politics.

    A single social welfare grant can also help the grantor. Rather than going to all the trouble of spending its social welfare money on actual activities, it can simply write a check and spend a near equal amount on campaigning.

    The irony is that by law, both grantors and grantees exist primarily to serve the common good — not engage in “political campaign activity,” pushing for or against a candidate.

    But nonprofits may have a short window to bolster political spending by leveraging social welfare grants and using the multiplier effect.

    The IRS is considering proposed rules limiting political spending by social welfare nonprofits, available here. Comments on the proposed rules, which are due today, can be submitted online.

     

     

    Julie Patelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julie-patelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/27/14294/transfers-allow-nonprofits-spend-more-money-campaigns-experts-say

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    A Center for Public Integrity analysis of dozens of Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission documents found three social welfare nonprofits that spent money on politics and did not report their activity to the Internal Revenue Service, as required.

    “That’s called playing with fire,” Marcus Owens, a former chief of the IRS’s nonprofits division, said about groups that neglect to report political expenses.

    Colorado Family Action reported no political activity on its 2012 tax return but the social welfare nonprofit reported $78,058 worth of expenses to fight President Barack Obama’s re-election, according to FEC records.

    Jessica Haverkate, Colorado Family Action’s executive director, told the Center for Public Integrity in an email that the group plans to amend its tax return to “accurately state our primary exempt purpose,” reduce its stated revenue to remove an in-kind donation and report political expenses of $25,498.

    Haverkate didn’t explain why the political expenses were lower than what was reported to the FEC.

    Family Foundation Action claimed no political campaign activity on its 2012 tax return but spent $18,942 last year attempting to oust Obama, according to FEC records. Family Foundation Action officials did not return calls and emails.

    Public Interest Forum said it isn’t political on its 2012 tax return. But it spent $4,038 opposing Obama in 2012, FEC records show. Public Interest Forum officials did not return calls and emails.

    Meanwhile, one group — RightChange.com II — underreported its political spending, as first noted by ProPublica. Itreported $150,000 in political campaign activity during 2010 to account for a grant it gave of the same amount to its 527 committee, which is not limited in terms of how much it can spend on politics.

    But the group reported making $192,070 worth of independent expenditures that year, according to Center for Responsive Politics and FEC records.

    The money paid for an ad supporting Tim Burns, the Republican nominee in the special election that spring for the seat of longtime Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania who died in February 2010. Burns lost.

    Representatives of RightChange.com II, including North Carolina state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell Jr., who was listed as the group’s secretary, did not return calls or emails.

    Since the nonprofits’ political spending was reported as independent expenditures — money spent to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate — “it’s hard to imagine any way that they could claim those activities were not political campaign intervention reportable to the IRS,” said John Pomeranz, a nonprofit tax law expert and attorney with Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg.

    The groups could get their tax-exempt status revoked, or worse, face criminal charges for reporting incorrect information to the IRS, said Owens, an attorney with Caplin & Drysdale. He added that intentionally filing false tax returns is a crime: “Since tax returns are filed under penalty of perjury, it raises an interesting question as to whether that’s a false return.”

    Owens noted that the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted the leader of the Fiesta Bowl organization, a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, a few years ago because it made political contributions that weren’t reported on its tax return.

    “The issue of lying on your tax return is a problem in and of itself,” said Adam Rappaport, senior counsel with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The other question is, how is IRS supposed to enforce law [and determine the extent of a group’s political activity] if they don’t know how much was spent?”

      

    The Internal Revenue Service building in WashingtonJulie Patelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julie-patelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/27/14295/nonprofits-failure-report-political-activity-irs-raises-questions

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    A new study has underscored just how little is known about the health consequences of the natural gas boom that began a decade ago, when advances in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and directional drilling allowed companies to tap shale deposits across the United States.

    "Despite broad public concern, no comprehensive population-based studies of the public health effects of [unconventional natural gas] operations exist," concluded the report published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

    Last week, The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel reported on the health data gap in the Eagle Ford Shale, where a lack of air monitoring and research is aggravated by a Texas regulatory system that often protects the gas and oil industry over the public.

    Scientists interviewed for the series said the uncertainties persist across the country. In the words of one expert, scientists "really haven't the foggiest idea" how shale development impacts public health.

    Gas and oil production releases many toxic chemicals into the air and water, including carcinogens like benzene and respiratory hazards like hydrogen sulfide. While residents near drilling areas in Texas reported symptoms that are known to be caused by these chemicals, including migraines and breathing problems, it was impossible to link them to the drilling boom because no studies could be found that prove cause and effect.

    The new study, led by John Adgate at the Colorado School of Public Health, examined available research on the environmental, social and psychological impacts of shale gas drilling. It was the first time anyone had tried to tackle the question in a systematic way, Adgate said.

    The researchers found that much of the existing work "isn't explicitly tied to health." Many studies analyzed the level of pollutants in the air or water, but didn't track how the exposures are connected to local health trends. Other studies used health surveys, but didn’t compare the respondents' results with the health of the larger surrounding community.

    What's needed, Adgate said, are comprehensive studies that examine possible connections between chemical exposures and community health trends. But these types of studies require substantial funding and good baseline data, both of which are hard to obtain.

    "You're not going to find anything if you don't look, and some people think we shouldn't be looking, or that it's not worth looking," he said. "We do know a lot of these things are hazardous, and we just need to develop a system … [that] provides people with a reasonable level of certainty [on the] effects, or lack thereof."

    Health impacts will vary based on local geology, weather patterns, operator practices and other factors, Adgate said, so it would make sense to set up a study that tracks people from different parts of the country.

    Regulators are well aware of the knowledge gap. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office — an investigative arm of Congress — reviewed more than 90 studies from government agencies, the industry and academic researchers and concluded that oil and gas development "pose inherent environmental and public health risks, but the extent of these risks … is unknown, in part, because the studies GAO reviewed do not generally take into account the potential long-term, cumulative effects."

    On the issue of air pollution, the GAO said the studies "are generally anecdotal, short-term, and focused on a particular site or geographic location … [They] do not provide the information needed to determine the overall cumulative effect that shale oil and gas activities have on air quality.”

    Bernard Goldstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and a co-author of the paper, pointed to a need for well-designed studies in large populations. Scientists could analyze a community before, during and after drilling begins, or compare the health of residents in communities close to and far from a shale play, he said.

    Both Adgate and Goldstein cited major barriers in funding. "There hasn't been a lot of money thrown at this problem," Adgate said. "It's a contentious issue as everybody knows, and nobody's stepped up to say we're going to fund independent research."

    Goldstein said the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — part of the National Institutes of Health — has started to fund some studies, but the results won’t emerge for years. Adgate suggested more public-private partnerships like the Health Effects Institute, an independent research organization that studies vehicular air pollution. It is jointly funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the auto industry.

    Goldstein, a doctor and toxicologist who served as an assistant EPA administrator under President Reagan, sees the lack of research as a failure of transparency. "The impression I have is, there's at least some part of industry that believes it's better not to have these studies, because they believe it will lead to toxic tort lawyers suing the industry."

    There seems to be little interest in obtaining better data, he said. Two years ago, he led a study that analyzed the membership of three advisory committees established by President Obama and the governors of Maryland and Pennsylvania. All three groups were tasked with studying the impacts of shale gas, yet Goldstein and his colleagues found that none of the 51 members had a medical or health background.

    "The current lack of almost any support for research directly related to the health effects of unconventional gas drilling is shortsighted and counterproductive," he said in 2012 in testimony before the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee. "This is not a one-time event in a single location whose health effects could be hidden by simply not looking for them … [The] only cost-effective time … to make this investment is now rather than to wait until the inevitable clamor for such research when diseases begin to appear that are associated with natural gas drilling activities."

    This report is part of a joint project by The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. Lisa Song is with InsideClimate News and Jim Morris is with the Center for Public Integrity.

    A flare from a well site is situated near a rural home in Karnes County.Lisa Songhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/lisa-songJim Morrishttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jim-morrishttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/27/14302/natural-gas-boom-advances-little-study-public-health-effects-report-finds

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    A legion of zombie super PACs — they exist on paper but barely engage in politics, if at all — face "administrative termination" by federal regulators for failing to file mandatory financial disclosures, top Federal Election Commission officials today told the Center for Public Integrity.

    Such action could affect dozens, even hundreds, of federally registered super PACs found to be delinquent with their reporting.

    FEC officials have begun mailing these committees letters that warn they must file "immediately" or risk "civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action."

    In interviews today, FEC Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican, and Vice Chairman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, said the agency would also seek to dispatch super PACs that disregard disclosure rules.

    "We expect people to follow the rules and carry out their PAC filing obligations," Goodman said. "If not, these committees will become candidates for administrative termination."

    Goodman added that just as it is relatively easy to form a political committee, it's also simple to disband one. He encouraged PAC leaders whose committees are no longer active to inform the FEC they want to formally call it quits.

    The FEC, after all, finds itself severely shorthanded in its Reports Analysis Division, which is tasked with reviewing political committees' disclosures for accuracy and legality. Goodman recently estimated the division is saddled with a 21-week paperwork backlog.

    Among the generally unknown lot of deadbeat super PACs receiving FEC warning letters are those with grandiose goals, such as "Americans for Freedom and Progress," issues with ambiguity, such as "Americans for Solutions," and snarky senses of humor, such as "Americans against Americans who Do Not Recycle and Misspell Bengazi."

    In these, as in most cases, the super PACs have little or no money to their name or simply never filed required federal disclosures after registering with the FEC to become a super PAC.

    But a few outfits now under FEC scrutiny once grabbed headlines and actively raised and spent money, including the 9-9-9 Fund, a super PAC that formed in 2011 to bolster the presidential campaign of Republican Herman Cain. It previously reported raising about $62,000 during the second half of 2011, when Cain's political star quickly waxed, then waned, then fizzled altogether.

    The super PAC has yet to file a financial disclosure covering July through September last year, the FEC contends.

    As of today, the FEC has 750 formally registered super PACs on the books. Super PACs may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates. This differentiates them from traditional PACs, which may donate limited amounts of money directly to political candidates and committees but may only raise limited amounts of money from individuals and other PACs.

    This is not the first time the FEC has considered a mass purge of seemingly defunct political committees.

    During 2012, for example, the FEC axed 61 PACs and super PACs created by an eccentric Floridian named Josue Larose, who foryearshashabitually created federal- and state-level political committees that ultimately raise and spend no money and routinely violate disclosure laws.

    Curiously, a number of political committees now under FEC scrutiny are listed as being led by a "James Lincoln" of Florida, who uses similar naming conventions to those employed by Larose.

    For both men, most of their committees' formal names end with the words "Super Pac" or "Federal Pac," with the acronym "PAC" containing lowercase letters — uncommon among all PACs.

    And instead of basing his super PACs from a post office box in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as Larose did, Lincoln bases his at a post office box in Boca Raton, Fla., federal records show.

    Neither Lincoln nor Larose could be reached for comment.

     

     

    Kim Kinney, of Atlanta, dressed as a zombie, walks through the floor of Walker Stalker Con, a convention based off the cable TV show "The Walking Dead," Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Atlanta.Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/27/14306/zombie-super-pacs-face-termination

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    President Obama launched a new initiative Thursday called My Brother’s Keeper, a privately funded effort to address the high rates at which black and Latino males drop out of school, come into contact with the criminal justice system and fall victim to violence.

    “This is an issue of national importance,” Obama said at the White House. “It is an issue that goes to the heart of why I ran for president.”

    Ten foundations have signed on to raise and provide $200 million over the next five years for programs, building on the $150 million they’ve already invested.

    In recent years, The Center for Public Integrity has investigated the impact of expulsions and arrests of black and Latino students on various communities, from working class immigrant farmworker regions in California to liberal enclaves like San Francisco.

    When people hear a range of grim statistics about men and boys of color, Obama said, “We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage it is.”

    One such statistic cited by the White House: Black and Latino young men are six times more likely to be victims of murder than their white peers are each year. The new initiative to stop young men from dropping out, getting arrested and getting “profiled,” Obama said, isn’t “some big government program.”

    The projects range from programs to reform discipline that leads to kids dropping out to helping kids get back on track after they’ve been arrested, sent to court or incarcerated.

    In January, the Education Department and Justice Department published guidelines for effective school discipline and school policing.

    In North Carolina, students and parents have alleged cases of excessive police force at schools. Civil rights groups have also revealed evidence of disproportionate punishment of black students for violating some of the same school policies as white students.

     In Los Angeles, in the nation’s second largest school district, where about 75 percent of students are Latino, community complaints have escalated in recent years about increasingly aggressive school policing and involvement of police in school discipline.

    Until a couple of years ago, the Center reported, school police were ticketing thousands of students mostly at schools in low-income areas of Los Angeles for minor infractions that juvenile court judges complained were previously handled at school. Calls for new standards have led to new policies to stop ticketing kids 12 and younger, to keep L.A. Unified School police officers out of routine discipline cases and send kids who are ticketed to counseling rather than the courts.

    Manuel  Criollo, an organizer with the Los Angeles Labor-Community Strategy Center,  has led campaigns to reform school policing, which civil rights activists said was putting too many black and Latino kids into court and conflict with police.

    He called Obama’s announcement Thursday “an important breakthrough for the movement and for institutions and foundations that have been working on this issue.”

    The White House noted additional disturbing data Thursday.

    By the time they’re in fourth grade, 86 percent of African-American boys and 82 percent of Latino boys are below reading proficiency levels for their age, compared to 54 percent of white fourth graders.  African-Americans make up 16 percent of the overall youth population but account for 28 percent of juvenile arrests and 37 percent of prisoners and jail detainees.

    As part of the initiative, Obama established the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, which will review public and private policies that have proven effective. The task force will establish a “What Works” online portal highlighting programs that have a positive impact.

    Foundations participating in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative include the Ford Foundation; the Kapor Center for Social Impact; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Open Society Foundations; Bloomberg Philanthropies; the Knight Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;  the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies and the California Endowment.

    The Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies and the California Endowment are Center donors.

    In a statement, Kenneth H. Zimmerman, director of U.S. Programs for the Open Society Foundations, said: “We all have a stake in tapping the potential of young men of color, and we must work together to create more pathways for them to flourish.”

     

     

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    A new White House initiative calls for new methods and programs to keep black and Latino young men in school and out of courts and jails. In 2012, students in Los Angeles marched to end police ticketing for tardiness they said was negatively affecting black and Latino youths and pushing them away from school.Susan Ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/susan-ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/02/27/14321/obama-announces-foundation-funded-project-help-black-latino-youth

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    A Center for Public Integrity series exploring how sick and dying coal miners encounter steep hurdles in winning health benefits claims has won a top investigative reporting prize from a business editors’ group.

    Center reporter Chris Hamby was honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for Breathless and Burdened, a 3-part series disclosing how the coal industry, backed by prominent lawyers and doctors, repeatedly beats back miners’ claims for modest benefits.

    The series, which has helped trigger a series of reforms, including new measures announced this week by the U.S. Department of Labor, won the Digital Investigative reporting prize. Part of the series was produced in partnership with the ABC News investigative unit.

    “Resourceful, hard-nosed reporting that undergirded this project, as well as by the clarity and power of the writing,” judges wrote of Hamby’s work. “Combined reportorial mastery of technical subjects with concrete, precise, and rich humanity. Outrageous and compelling.”

    Breathless and Burdened was among the winners and finalists announced by SABEW.

    The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center, was recognized as a finalist for international investigative reporting for Secrecy for Sale. Judges described the ICIJ project as “stunning in its sweep.”

     


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    With fewer than 30 shopping days left before Obamacare open enrollment ends on March 31, if you want to get coverage through the health insurance marketplace and avoid having to pay a penalty, you should log on sooner rather than later.

    Although most of the problems with HealthCare.gov have been resolved, signing up for coverage that’s best for you might take more time than you expect because of the often confusing assortment of plans to choose from. This definitely is not something you want to wait until the last minute to do.

    Lawmakers who wrote the Affordable Care Act fell for the health insurance industry’s insistence that Americans want “choice and competition.” Having worked in that industry for two decades, I know the real reason insurers and their allies kept reciting the “choice and competition” mantra was to scare lawmakers away from even daring to give serious thought to a single-payer health care system.

    And I also know that insurers benefit from the marketplace confusion that “choice and competition” can create. I can assure you that some insurers are counting on you becoming overwhelmed by all the choices and picking a plan that might appear at first glance to be a bargain. But beware: if you’re not careful and pick a plan without really kicking the tires, you very possibly will be buying something that could wind up costing you much more than you ever imagined if you get sick or injured.

    That happened to my friend Donna Smith, who as executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation, knows more about health insurance than most of us. She spent quite a bit of time last fall on the Colorado exchange trying to figure out which plan would offer the best value for her and her husband. If she had to do it over again, she would have taken the additional step of calling the insurance companies directly after reviewing the plans they were offering on the exchange, just to be certain of what her out-of-pocket obligations would be if she had to be hospitalized during the year.

    A cancer survivor, Donna knew there would be a chance she might get sick again and need expensive care. It never occurred to her, though, that picking a gold or platinum level plan with a higher premium would likely have been better deal than the silver Kaiser Permanente plan she opted for and that seemed to be more affordable.

    To make shopping for coverage even more challenging, Kaiser and most other insurers offer several silver plans on the Colorado exchange, so Donna had to spend time trying to figure out which silver plan would be the best deal.

    Donna told me the she took the time to compare the monthly premiums, co-pays and annual deductibles of each of the silver plans before making her decision. “I felt that the one I chose offered the most coverage I could afford with my premium buying dollar,” she said.

    Sure enough, within days after the plan went into effect on January 1, Donna got sick and was hospitalized for a week.

    To her shock, she later found out some limitations of her coverage that made her overall financial responsibility much higher.

    For one thing, she discovered that hospitalization under her plan required a co-insurance payment of 30 percent. She didn’t realize while shopping on the exchange that some other silver plans charged only 20 percent co-insurance for inpatient hospital stays.

    She also found out that some services she needed, such as the anesthesia for a biopsy that was performed while she was in the hospital, were not covered under her plan at all.

    “That $400 bill is my responsibility. So after this one illness and hospitalization, we end up several thousand dollars in debt,” she said.

    “In retrospect,” she added, “I needed to ask much more detailed questions about the coverage. I definitely should have gone beyond talking just to the very gracious and helpful navigator. I believe now that I would have done better with one of the gold Kaiser plans that might have cost another $150-$200 per month but saved me from these higher costs of getting sick.”

    Donna says she feels “embarrassed and foolish” that she didn’t go the extra step of asking those detailed questions of a Kaiser customer service person before signing up for her coverage.

    Nevertheless, she says she’s grateful for the Affordable Care Act because even though she is paying more for her care than she expected, she’s not on the hook as much as she would have been before the law was passed. For one thing, the law caps her out-of-pocket spending this year at $6,350. And her Kaiser plan is still saving her money over the Aetna plan she had last year.

    Donna is just as much an advocate for a single-payer system as she ever was, but she believes the Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction. But her experience is all the proof you need that too much choice in health care can increase the chances that you’ll make expensive mistakes when signing up for coverage.

    Wendell Potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/wendell-potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/03/03/14323/dizzying-array-options-obamacare-can-lead-expensive-mistakes

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    President Barack Obama's new budget proposal is no windfall for the nation's elections watchdog.

    The Federal Election Commission, throttled of late by Chinese hackers and staffing shortages, would receive $67.5 million during fiscal year 2015, according to Obama's plan.

    That's $500,000 less than the FEC formally requested. It's also millions of dollars less than the agency needs to fill numerous job vacancies and return to last decade's staffing levels, and to clear an estimated 2.1 million-page backlog of unprocessed campaign filings.

    The White House's budget proposal pretends to fill the shortfall between the FEC's request and the budget proposal with $430,000 in savings from members of the U.S. Senate electronically filing their campaign finance reports. The Senate, however, shows little sign that it intends to ditch paper for pixels anytime soon.

    Even with its requested $68 million — an 3.3 percent increase over the $65.8 million it's receiving in the current fiscal year — the FEC "anticipates significant budgetary challenges" in the months ahead.

    "[D]ue to recent funding restrictions, the Commission may now make only the most critical of hires," the FEC wrote the White House's Office of Management and Budget in September, noting it's slashed its staff by 8 percent this decade and filled just six of 21 vacant positions. "These sustained reductions significantly impair the agency's efforts to manage its human capital and ensure that it can hire and retain top performers who deliver the FEC's mission efficiently and effectively."

    Among the FEC's most pressing challenges is securing its computer networks. In October, hackers successfully infiltrated its systems and crashed its databases, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

    An independent audit declared the FEC at "high risk" of additional attacks, and leaders of two congressional committees say they'reinvestigating its security situation.

    The agency is responsible for monitoring and making public the election activities of more than 10,000 political committees and other election season actors this year.  The 2014 midterms are all but assured to be the nation's most expensive ever, meaning the crush of paperwork FEC staffers must process will be greater than ever for a comparable election cycle.

    Obama's budget proposal is just the first step in the protracted process of funding the federal government. Congress could yet increase — or decrease — the FEC's allotment for fiscal year 2015 before Obama signs off on a final budget deal.

    Earlier this year, Lee Goodman, the FEC's newly installed chairman and a Republican appointee, said the agency's current funding allows it to "address its most pressing priorities." But he stopped short of saying it would allow the FEC to address longer-term challenges.

    The president's fiscal 2015 budget proposal also calls for cuts to the budget of the increasingly idled Election Assistance Commission.

    This commission, which is supposed to help ensure the integrity of federal elections and voting systems, is slated to receive $10 million next fiscal year. That's down from the more than $11 million this year and the nearly $18 million it got during Obama's first term.

    Some Republicans want to disband the Election Assistance Commission altogether.

     

     

    President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address while standing in front of Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner.Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/03/04/14325/obama-budget-no-windfall-beleaguered-fec

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    A new multi-billion dollar plant being constructed by the Energy Department in South Carolina to transform Cold War-era plutonium into electricity will not be operated as planned, the department announced on March 4, making clear that the costliest nonproliferation project run by Washington will shortly be shuttered.

    After a year of study meant to examine the viability of the two-decade old program, the department’s leadership made clear in budget documents for fiscal year 2015 that the plant is no longer affordable within budget limits set by Congress.

    Initially advertised as a $1 billion program, the plant has already consumed more than $4 billion and was projected to cost up to $10 billion to complete over the next five years. Its total costs — including operation over 15 years — were estimated at nearly $34 billion by a special study conducted for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

    The plant, which lay at the center of a diplomatic deal with Russia that was blessed by three U.S. presidents, was supposed to transform at least 34 tons of plutonium withdrawn from retired U.S. nuclear weapons into so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel to be burned in civilian nuclear power plants. Russia agreed to undertake a similar effort, but the cancellation of the U.S. plan may affect that decision.

    The department’s review “has determined that the MOX fuel approach is significantly more expensive than planned and it is not viable within the FY 2015 funding levels,” the White House’s Energy Department budget proposal states. “The Department of Energy is developing alternative approaches to plutonium disposition and will engage with stakeholders to determine a viable alternative.”

    The budget calls for placing the two-thirds completed MOX plant, located in Savannah River, S.C., on “cold-standby,” and slashing the program’s 2013 budget of $657 million almost in half — to $311 million next year. U.S. officials have privately said they are looking closely at a much cheaper method of disposing of the plutonium that could still involve some of the 2,100 workers now employed in the MOX plant’s construction.

    The budget language says the administration remains committed to the “overarching goal” of destroying the plutonium and “will work with its Russian partners to achieve the goals of the agreement in a mutually beneficial manner.” On the U.S. side, the project has been plagued by delays and mismanagement, but staunchly supported — and kept alive — by South Carolina’s congressional delegation.

    South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

      

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.Douglas Birchhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/douglas-birchR. Jeffrey Smithhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/r-jeffrey-smithhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/03/04/14327/nuclear-waste-energy-department-proposes-kill-multi-billion-dollar-nuclear-fuel

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    As the Republican Party marches toward a tea party vs. establishment brawl, or even hurtles toward political civil war, conservative super PACs and nonprofits are helping bankroll the journey.

    One in five dollars spent by all super PACs, nonprofit groups and the like on election advocacy came from identifiably conservative groups attacking Republican congressional candidates, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign disclosures covering Jan. 1 to Feb. 28.

    Liberal political groups, in contrast, didn't spent a dime roughing up Democrats during this time, focusing their efforts exclusively on promoting Democrats or bashing Republicans.

    In all, conservative groups spent more than $2.3 million on negative ads targeting Republican candidates, according to FEC records.

    That's more than the $2.1 million conservative groups spent overtly advocating against the election of Democratic candidates.

    Their activity also represents a dramatic shift in political strategy from the same block of time during 2010 midterm elections, when conservative organizations didn't spend cash attacking GOP hopefuls at all, federal records from the time show.

    Then, political groups were just making sense of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that the Supreme Court dropped in late January 2010. It allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against candidates.

    Overall, the money that outside political groups have invested in "independent expenditures" — messages that either promote or pummel a federal political candidate — has increased exponentially from four years ago.

    Collectively, these organizations spent just $1.92 million in January and February of 2010, as Democrats and Republicans fought for control of Congress, much of which focused on the special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts that Republican Scott Brown ultimately won.

    This year, groups have spent about six times that amount — about $11.6 million, federal records show.

    While some of this money is targeting candidates in special elections such as the one in Florida's 13th Congressional District, where Republican David Jolly faces off with Democrat Alex Sink next week, most is flowing into partisan primaries.

    Conservative groups attempting to defeat Republican candidates fit several profiles.

    First, there are the tea party-affiliated organizations.

    Super PAC FreedomWorks for America, for example, is campaigning against Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who faces a tough GOP primary fight with state lawmaker Chris McDaniel. It's also attempting to defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., while favoring conservative businessman Matt Bevin in the Bluegrass State's GOP primary.

    "If Republicans really want to win races, they need to focus on policy more, and it's a mistake to think that people will rally around their guy just because he's a Republican," Russ Walker, national political director for FreedomWorks for America, told the Center for Public Integrity. "I don't worry about the criticism. For us, it's about the agenda and the ideas candidates put forward, and we back candidates based on that."

    Super PAC Club for Growth Action, meanwhile, spent more than $317,000 in January and February campaigning against Cochran, whose record on taxes and financial matters it has incessently bashed.

    Asked if he's concerned his organization is weakening the Republican Party’s odds of a successful 2014 midterm election, Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller simply said, "no." But he indicated his group's advocacy against certain Republicans is only limited to primary season, not the general election.

    House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is all but assured to win another term. But that hasn't dissuaded the Tea Party Leadership Fund, which advocates "taking down the establishment," from trying. It's already spent $178,000 on anti-Boehner radio, online, billboard and direct mail ads, its campaign filings indicate.

    Establishment-minded, candidate-specific conservative committees are also blasting other Republicans.

    A prime example is the Mississippi Conservatives super PAC, which has pushed against Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks for America by spending $342,000 to skewer McDaniel.

    Another is Texans for a Conservative Majority, a hybrid PAC formed to defend Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, against a primary challenge from Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas.

    It executed its mission with aplomb, spending nearly $1 million in January and February against Stockman, who Cornyn easily defeated Tuesday. Late Republican super donors Bob Perry and Harold Simmons provided much of the organization's funding.

    Florida's 19th Congressional District race has also birthed a candidate-specific super PAC that Fox 4 News in Fort Myers, Fla., reports is closely tied to Republican candidate and state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto. The committee, called the Liberty & Leadership Fund, has already spent $60,000 on ads targeting fellow Republican candidate Curt Clawson ahead of an August primary.

    Furthermore, the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among the nation's most deep-pocketed political forces, has jumped into the mix.

    A 501(c)(6) nonprofit trade association, the Chamber has invested most of the $1.7 million it has spent this year on electoral advocacy promoting McConnell and Jolly, the Republican congressional candidate in Florida, or trashing Sink, Jolly's Democratic opponent.

    But on Friday, the Chamber turned on a Republican, launching a television and online ad campaign worth $200,000 against attorney Bryan Smith, a Republican who's challenging Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in a primary.

    "Our ad speaks for itself in outlining our concerns with Bryan Smith’s record and why we are supporting Mike Simpson in the race," Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said of the ad campaign. "We have said that we will support free enterprise candidates aggressively and early. Our support is predicated on where the candidates stand on a broad range of issues that are important to the business community."

    Republicans currently control the U.S. House of Representatives, and at this point, Democrats must win 17 new seats to regain control of it.

    Democrats, for their part, control the U.S. Senate, and Republicans must win six seats to regain control of it.

    An image from the Tea Party Leadership Fund's Facebook pageDave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/03/05/14288/super-pacs-nonprofits-fueling-gop-strife

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