January 27, 2006
Who's your donor?

The anti-DeLay TV ads get another day in the news cycle, but not in a way that I'd have preferred.

The Public Campaign Action Fund and the Campaign for America's Future said they used the nonprofit arms of their organizations to buy about $80,000 worth of broadcast time. Such organizations, unlike national political action committees and other campaign groups, do not have to list their contributors for the federal government.

Nick Nyhart, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund and a nonprofit affiliate called Public Campaign, said it is reasonable that lawmakers, but not his groups, must fully disclose their donors.

Elected officials "have the power to make laws and affect policy that private organizations don't," he said. "There is no material benefit that a donor can get by giving money to us, other than passing campaign finance laws and educating the public."

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, said the group "discloses exactly what is required."

Its tax returns show how much was received in contributions, but not donor names or what they gave.

The groups denied the Chronicle's request for a list of top contributors.


The tax-exempt status of the nonprofits could be in jeopardy if the groups engage in too much political activity, according to watchdog groups.

"They are allowed to do a substantial amount of political activity, but they are not allowed to make it their primary purpose," said Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, which has evaluated the political efforts of several U.S. nonprofits.

He said activities of the Campaign for America's Future could be problematic "because the only time I hear about them is when they are getting involved in election activity."

Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, said the group does not veer too far into the political realm.

"We have more recently been involved in this government corruption issue," he said. "We have a track record of educational work that we are very proud of. Our activity around DeLay is simply an extension of that. We are not worried at all."

I have, as others have noted, complained in the past about this usage of nonprofits to shield the disclosure of donor names. I still feel that way. More disclosure is better than less, and I believe this loophole in the law should be changed to require it. If that would have meant that this ad could not have been run because of insufficient funding, then so be it. I believe a lot more genuine shams like "Texans for True Mobility" would be affected by such an alteration, so on balance it would be positive. Not by a small margin, either, I'd bet.

The Campaign for America's Future is well within its rights to keep its list secret, as current law stands. I think they've done good work here, but I also think that law should be changed. I expect that I will have plenty more opportunities to blog about this before that ever happens.

UPDATE: Forgot to say when I first wrote this that I have no problem with anonymity for small donors. We can argue over the definition of "small" here - $100? $1000? More? - but there's definitely a point of diminishing returns in there. I'd be happy with a simple accounting, as in "X percent of the funding for this ad came from people who gave Y dollars or less" for that. It's really only the big donors, the ones who can make ads happen out of thin air, whose identities have probitive value and should be made known regardless of the vehicle they use.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 27, 2006 to Scandalized! | TrackBack

In this they have copied some big GOP groups. Also one supposedly bipartisan group that spent big in Iowa to help knock out Dr. Howard Dean. With the non-diclosure requirements of non-profits it is much later if at all we learn the major funders.

I would also support public records of donors to these groups. I am also now more sensitive to the amount of non-tax paying organizations we have.

How many think that non-profit and church records should be fully public and there should limitations on their tax exemptions?

Posted by: Easter Lemming Liberal News on January 28, 2006 7:11 PM