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The progressive magazine Mother Jones reports on Congressional Democrats’ plans to curb the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which allows unlimited contributions to campaign organizations by corporate and union donors (see January 21, 2010). Last year, Senate Republicans refused to allow a campaign finance reform bill, the DISCLOSE Act, to come to the floor for a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). Now Democratic leaders say they are considering filing challenges to the nonprofit tax statuses of many of the groups that were so influential in the 2010 elections. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) tells a Mother Jones reporter about the plan. According to Van Hollen, two of the groups they plan to target are Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), headed by former Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN). Together, the two groups spent over $43 million supporting conservative candidates and targeting Democrats, accounting for some 23 percent of all outside conservative spending between them. According to Van Hollen, “People are looking at different legal strategies through the courts because there’s emerging evidence that these groups have abused the rules.” Representative David Price (D-NC) agrees. “I think there are ample goals for challenging the way those groups have acted,” he says. Crossroads GPS spokesperson Jonathan Collegio says in return, “Van Hollen is irresponsibly making claims on zero evidence whatsoever and this is extremely irresponsible for an elected official holding high office.” No one from AAN is willing to respond to the Mother Jones reporting. Both Crossroads GPS and AAN, like many other such groups, are organized under the IRS’s 501(c)4 tax status—tax-exempt, not-for-profit groups whose purpose under the IRS code is “primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” (see 2000 - 2005). The law allows such groups to engage in political advocacy, such as running ads for or against candidates, but such “electioneering” activities must not be those groups’ “primary activity.” As far as is known, Crossroads GPS and AAN have no other purpose except electioneering. 501(c) groups do not have to register as political action committees (PACs) and are allowed to conduct their business with very little outside scrutiny. However, if the Federal Election Commission or the IRS determine a group has violated the rules, that group would be forced to register as a PAC and disclose the sources of its funding. If the Democrats challenge the status of these groups, they would be following in the footsteps of private organizations. A coalition of public advocacy groups has filed complaints against Crossroads GPS and another 501(c)4 group, American Future Fund (AFF—see October 12, 2010), claiming that their primary functions are, according to the Crossroads GPS complaint, to “influence the 2010 federal elections and to elect Republicans to office.” The complaints are still pending. In September 2010, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) asked the IRS to examine several 501(c) groups to “ensure that political campaign activity” wasn’t their primary activity (see September 28, 2010). (Kroll 1/28/2011)
The Washington Post reports that an anonymous donor gave the political advocacy organization Crossroads GPS $10 million to run television ads attacking President Obama and Democratic policies, part of the almost $77 million in secret donations the group has received. It also received another $10 million from an anonymous donor to use during the 2010 midterm elections. The Post says the donations are emblematic of “the money race that is defining the 2012 presidential campaign.” According to data provided by the Center for Public Integrity, $76.8 million of the money raised in 2010 and 2011—62 percent—was secretly contributed to Crossroads GPS. The money came from fewer than 100 individual donors, which works out as an average donation of over $750,000; 90 percent of its donors gave over $1 million in individual donations. Crossroads GPS is a conservative nonprofit 501(c)(4) group co-founded by former Bush administration political advisor Karl Rove. The information about the donations comes from draft tax returns that provide a limited insight into the donations received by the group. Under the law (see January 21, 2010 and March 26, 2010), Crossroads GPS is not required to identify its donors. The Post says it is possible both donations came from the same source, but it has no way to confirm that supposition.
Explanations and Criticisms - Crossroads GPS is the sister organization of American Crossroads, the super PAC also co-founded by Rove. The two groups share the same president (Steven Law), the same spokesperson, the same staffers, and the same mailing address. Together, they have raised $100 million for the 2012 election cycle and have already run millions of dollars of television ads. Crossroads GPS spokesperson Jonathan Collegio says that the organization “advocates for free markets, free trade, limited government, and personal responsibility.” The group’s donors are “individuals and businesses that support our vision of lower taxes and smaller government. We believe President Obama’s tax and regulatory policies are strangling economic growth through excessive regulation and government spending that is crowding out private investment.” Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in government and politics, says that the two groups are “certainly not a grassroots movement.… These donors can have a very disproportionate effect on politics, and the fact that we don’t know who they are and what kind of favors they will ask for is very troubling.” Allison speculates that some of the anonymous Crossroads GPS donors may be large public corporations, which according to the Post have “for the most part… not donated to super PACs or other groups that disclose donors.” American Crossroads is required to disclose its donors, which include Texas billionaire Harold Simmons ($12 million) and Texas home builder Bob Perry ($2.5 million). The Republican Jewish Coalition has identified itself on its tax returns as a donor to Crossroads GPS, having given $4 million to the organization. (Crossroads GPS donated back $250,000.) Sunlight and other critics have questioned Crossroads GPS’s status as a nonprofit “social welfare” group. Under IRS regulations, such groups cannot have as their primary purpose influencing elections, but they can spend up to half their money on political campaigning. The group has asked the IRS to grant it tax-exempt status. Critics have asked the IRS to revoke the group’s nonprofit status, saying that it is patently a political organization. A complaint filed by the Campaign Law Center and Democracy 21 in December 2011 said in part, “We are deeply concerned about the failure of the IRS to take any public steps to show that the agency is prepared to enforce the tax laws.” Crossroads GPS claims it has spent $17 million on direct election activities and $27 million on “grassroots issue advocacy,” including a $16 million expenditure in the summer of 2011 on ads pushing against tax increases during debate on raising the debt ceiling (see August 5, 2011). It has also given some $16 million to a network of conservative advocacy groups, including $4 million to Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), $3.7 million to the National Federation of Independent Business, and $2 million to the National Right to Life Committee. According to Crossroads GPS, all of its donation recipients are instructed to use the funds “only for exempt purposes and not for political expenditures.” In 2010, ATR spent $4 million—almost exactly the amount it received from Crossroads GPS—on political ads in 2010. Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) says that even if ATR did not spend the Crossroads GPS money on ads, the donation allowed it to divert $4 million of its own money to election ads. “It’s the same amount—does that seem likely to be a coincidence to you?” she asks a reporter. An ATR spokesperson says the Crossroads GPS donation was “in support of our work fighting tax hikes.” (Farnam 4/13/2012; iWatch News 4/20/2012; Israel 4/20/2012)
High Compensation - Steven Law, the former deputy secretary of labor under President Bush and the former general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce who serves as the president of both organizations, pulled down $1.1 million in salaries and bonuses for the two groups. Collegio explains the high compensation to a reporter, saying: “Crossroads is a serious organization. Free market conservative donors know that hiring top CEO talent requires real compensation.” (iWatch News 4/20/2012)
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