- Dark money gets sliver of light thanks to court ruling
- Chamber sponsors issue ads not subject to revealing contributors
People for the American Way, a nonprofit group advocating for liberal causes and candidates, spent almost $2.5 million over the last decade trying to influence federal elections but didn’t report any individual donors funding its efforts — until now.
As a result of a recent court ruling, the group founded by television producer Norman Lear has opened its books to reveal the donors underwriting its political messaging in the last election.
“We’re committed to following the law as assiduously as possible,” said Drew Courtney, PFAW’s communications and research director said in an email.
The group listed two big contributors who gave a total of $70,000 just before last November’s election, in its latest report filed with the Federal Election Commission. They were Brandon Davis, an official with the Service Employees International Union in Washington who gave $60,000, and James C. Hormel, heir to the meatpacking fortune and former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg who donated $10,000. The two helped fund online ads supporting Democrats in more than a dozen congressional races in the 2018 midterms.
If others follow suit, voters may begin to know more about who else is funding campaign messages trying to influence them. A recent study by the watchdog group Issue One found almost $1 billion originating from undisclosed donors has been spent in federal elections since 2010.
A case brought by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington resulted in pro-disclosure legal rulings in CREW v. FEC last year, which again went all the way to the Supreme Court. The justices in September let stand decisions requiring broader disclosure of donors funding campaign messages.
Despite the ruling, some groups continue to resist disclosing donors, telling the Federal Election Commission they don’t raise any money specifically for campaigns even if they spend millions of dollars on campaign ads.
Brendan Fischer of the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center analyzed the latest FEC reports from these groups and found only a few have begun to disclose more about their finances. The commission filings “suggest that the CREW decision has resulted in slightly more disclosure from some groups—but the biggest dark money players are still banking on the FEC not enforcing the law” requiring disclosure, Fischer said in an email.
The FEC guidance released last October said that groups making independent campaign expenditures had to report donors funding such expenditures, as well as any contributors giving “for other political purposes in support or opposition to federal candidates.”
How strictly the new guidance will be enforced is likely to be tested by complaints filed against some groups that continue to keep donors secret. Fischer’s watchdog group has already filed a complaint against one nonprofit, Heritage Action for America, a conservative group that supports Republicans.
Heritage Action said it spent almost $2 million to influence campaigns in the last election, but it reported no donors. Jessica Anderson, who signed the group’s latest FEC report, said its campaign expenditures “were paid for from general treasury funds and, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief at the time of filing, no reportable contributions were made for the purpose of furthering these expenditures.”
The biggest non-disclosing group in 2018 favored Democrats. Majority Forward made more than $40 million in independent campaign expenditures to help Democratic Senate candidates. The group has never disclosed any donors and continued that practice in its latest FEC report.
“As a matter of policy, Majority Forward does not accept funds earmarked for independent expenditure activity or for other political purposes in support or opposition to federal candidates,” the FEC report said.
Other big-spending groups have adjusted their spending practices following last year’s court rulings on disclosure to allow them to continue avoiding donor disclosure. A prime example was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobby.
The Chamber, which claims to have more than 3 million members, has never disclosed specific donors funding its extensive campaign spending. More than $140 million in independent campaign expenditures have been reported by the Chamber in federal elections over the last decade, far more than any other group. Last fall, however, the Chamber but didn’t report any such spending during general election season.
The group continued to sponsor some political ads that discussed candidates but stopped short of asking for votes. These messages, generally known as “issue ads,” are subject to less stringent FEC disclosure rules. They’re considered “electioneering communications” if aired in the weeks before an election; the amount spent must be reported but not the funding source.
Chamber spokeswoman Blair Holmes last year denied that the business lobby changed its practices due to court rulings on disclosure.
She said in an email last fall that the Chamber had always “done a mix of issue ads,” along with explicit campaign ads calling for votes. Holmes said the Chamber’s strategy in the last election was prompted not by legal constraints but by its policy concerns, focused on priority issues: trade, immigration, tax overhaul and health care.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org