Co-authored by Daniel Hensel
This year, residents of Georgia’s 6th Congressional District were bombarded with a seemingly never-ending cascade of political advertisements. But figuring out who was really behind this $60 million spending spree is nothing short of a Herculean task.
Our disclosure laws are outdated. While the sponsors of ads must be disclosed, the names of politically active groups far too frequently provide little context about which interests or deep-pocketed donors are funding them, or what their true agendas are.
Issue One believes that stronger disclosure laws will promote more accountability as well as greater voter awareness and understanding. Transparency and disclosure are the building blocks necessary to empower citizens with information to make wise decisions and evaluate candidates and commercials. That’s why we believe advertisements by political groups should also disclose the names of the top three donors behind them.
In Georgia, the campaigns of Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel were hardly the only ones taking to the airwaves. Here are some of the ways voters were in the dark about the ads that deluged them.
Sponsor: America First Policies
America First Policies was formed by former Trump campaign aides in January 2017 to advocate for the president’s policy agenda. It’s not a super PAC, however. Instead, the group is organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code as a “social welfare” nonprofit. As such, America First Policies’ “primary purpose” cannot be influencing elections. But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, since 2010, nonprofits like America First Policies have been allowed to spend some of their funds on ads that encourage people to vote for or against a candidate. In Georgia, it did just that — to the tune of $1.5 million opposing Democrat Jon Ossoff. It is unknown who is bankrolling America First Policies; “social welfare” nonprofits are generally allowed to keep their donors’ names hidden from the public.
Sponsor: Patriot Majority USA
Patriot Majority USA, a “social welfare” nonprofit founded by an ally of former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, spent nearly $350,000 on ads opposing Republican Karen Handel in Georgia. Because Patriot Majority USA is not required to disclose its donors, it is not known who was funding this ad blitz. However, in the past, Patriot Majority USA has received substantial financial support from labor unions (such as AFSCME and the SEIU) and trade associations (such as the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care and American Health Care Association), according to research by the Center for Public Integrity and Center for Responsive Politics. Tax documents on CitizenAudit.org reviewed by Issue One show that Patriot Majority USA has, in recent years, also received money from the Sixteen Thirty Fund and NEO Philanthropy Action Fund.
Sponsor: U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Republican Karen Handel over Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s special election and spent $1.15 million aiding Handel’s bid. As a trade association organized under Sec. 501(c)(6) of the U.S. tax code, the business group is generally not required to disclose its funders. Some corporations, however, voluntarily disclose their contributions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among them are Dow Chemical, Chevron and Merck, according to research by the Center for Public Integrity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, received significant cash infusions in the past from politically active nonprofits such as Crossroads GPS (backed by GOP strategist Karl Rove) and the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce (associated with the conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch), as well as other trade associations such as the American Medical Association, American Petroleum Institute and Motion Picture Association of America.
Sponsor: Congressional Leadership Fund
Google the Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent $6.6 million on ads in the Georgia special election, and you’ll quickly learn that this super PAC is closely tied to GOP House leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan.
As a super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund is required to disclose its donors. And reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that some of the Congressional Leadership Fund’s largest donors this year include corporations such as energy giant Chevron ($250,000) and private prison company GEO Corrections Holdings ($100,000), as well as billionaires Western Refining Chairman Paul Foster and hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, who each gave $1 million.
But the Congressional Leadership Fund’s top donor this year is the American Action Network, a conservative nonprofit “action tank” that doesn’t disclose its donors and which is headed by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, a lobbyist whose clients have included Saudi Arabia. The American Action Network has contributed about $7 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund — about 60 percent of its total receipts through mid-June.
Sponsor: Americans United for Values
While Americans United for Values is a super PAC that is required to disclose its donors, wholly 100 percent of the $250,000 the conservative group has raised this year is from another organization — the American Policy Coalition — that is not required to disclose its funders.
And the American Policy Coalition is just as mysterious as Americans United for Values.
The American Policy Coalition’s bare-bones website contains only a logo and a single advertisement supporting the Export-Import Bank. Business filings and tax records show the group, which is organized as a “social welfare” nonprofit under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, was first launched in August 2011 under the name BluegrassVotes.org. It changed its name to the American Policy Coalition in November 2015.
Between its formation and Sept. 30, 2015, the American Policy Coalition never raised more than $50,000 in a single year, according to tax records. On March 28, 2017, it donated $250,000 to Americans United Values, which, in turn, spent $215,000 opposing Bob Gray in the GOP primary in Georgia this spring.
FEC records show the American Policy Coalition also donated $127,000 to Americans United for Values in January 2016, when the super PAC was running ads against Ted Cruz in the GOP presidential primary. The American Policy Coalition further funneled nearly $2 million to the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Eric Greitens of Missouri in 2016 through a super PAC called SEALs for Truth.
Sponsor: Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Organized as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund says it exists “to ensure that elected officials support policies and programs that help women and their families make responsible choices about family planning and reproductive health.” The group backed Democrat Jon Ossoff to the tune of more than $820,000, mostly for digital ads, mailings and phone banking to help get out the vote. Who was behind the expenditures? It’s unclear. The group is generally not required to disclose its donors. In the past, when the FEC has asked if the Planned Parenthood Action Fund accepted any contributions earmarked for overt political expenditures, the group has said no. (Such explicit contributions, which rarely occur, are the only ones politically active nonprofits are currently required by law to disclose to the FEC.)
Sponsor: Engage Georgia
Just three weeks before Election Day, Engage Georgia registered as a super PAC with the FEC. Because of its late formation, the liberal-leaning group wasn’t required to disclose any of its donors before Election Day. Campaign finance records show it spent more than $63,000 on “online video advertisements” in support of Democrat Jon Ossoff. The donors behind this effort will be reported to the FEC in July.
Sponsor: House Majority PAC
What’s in a name? Both Democrats and Republicans would clearly like to control a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. But House Majority PAC, which was founded in 2011, works to elect House Democrats and has strong ties to Democratic leaders including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
As a super PAC, House Majority PAC regularly discloses its donors to the FEC. But had the additional disclosure requirements for political ads favored by Issue One been in place, Georgians would have easily learned that the group’s top three donors this year are billionaire George Marcus, who works in commercial real estate, millionaire hedge fund manager Donald Sussman, who has traditionally funded political reform groups including Issue One, and NextGen Climate Action, a super PAC primarily funded by billionaire hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer.
Campaign finance records show that Marcus has given $500,000 to House Majority PAC so far this year, while Sussman has given $250,000 and NextGen Climate Action has given $200,000. House Majority PAC spent about $650,000 in the Georgia special election.