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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)
The 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) requires third-party groups working on behalf of candidates or parties not to coordinate their efforts with those candidates or parties—to remain “independent.” Many political observers have suspected that some of these groups are coordinating their efforts with the campaigns and/or with one another. Two of the groups under suspicion are American Crossroads, a super PAC, and Crossroads GPS. The two groups share the same president (Steven Law), the same spokesperson, the same staffers, and the same mailing address. Together, the two have raised $100 million for the 2012 election cycle and have already run millions of dollars of television ads (see April 13-20, 2012). In early June, Crossroads GPS spent $70,000 in advertisements attacking Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), half of its $140,000 spent on that race. Shortly before that run of advertisements began, Heitkamp’s Republican challenger, Rick Berg (R-ND), paid the Black Rock Group, a Republican consulting firm in Virginia, thousands of dollars for “communications consulting.” Black Rock is also contracted to perform “advocacy and communications consulting” for American Crossroads. Black Rock’s founding partner, Carl Forti, is American Crossroads’s political director and formerly served as Crossroads GPS’s advocacy director. (Forti also helped start Restore Our Future, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s super PAC—see June 23, 2011). Black Rock partner Michael Dubke is the founder of Crossroads Media, which buys ads for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Crossroads Media and Black Rock share offices. It would be illegal for Berg’s campaign to consult or coordinate with Crossroads GPS on advertisement strategies. It would not be illegal for Berg’s campaign to consult with Black Rock, and then for Black Rock to consult with Crossroads GPS. “The real scandal is what’s legal,” says Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center. The Citizens United ruling said that groups would disclose their donors and activists, and groups would not coordinate with one another. Yet both provisions are either being ignored or dodged. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 says: “The statu[t]e and the Supreme Court have been very strong on preventing coordination. But the FEC regulations have basically gutted the laws and given us very weak laws to prevent coordination between outside spenders and candidates… despite the fact that the Court’s entire decision in Citizens United is based on the notion that the expenditures are going to be entirely independent from the campaign.” Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation says, “[T]he FEC [Federal Election Commission] has a very narrow definition of what coordination actually is.” As long as a campaign and an outside group do not directly communicate, their use of a “common vendor” such as Black Rock is perfectly legal as long as several specific criteria are avoided. “It kind of boggles the mind, but that’s what the FEC has defined and there’s nothing illegal about it.” Ryan says: “It makes the coordination rules pretty meaningless. We have all of this special interest money that we feared might be in the system, and none of the meaningful restraints on coordination, and very limited disclosure.” Allison gives a hypothetical example: “If they’re using the same people to buy ads, and the campaign is telling the ad buyer, ‘We want you to buy ads in such and such and such,’ and the ad buyer does that, the super PAC can then say, ‘Well, run ads where they’re not running ads, or double their ads,’ or whatever. These guys are professionals and they know how to do this. That’s still not coordination.” There is no evidence that Black Rock is ferrying communications between Crossroads GPS and the Berg campaign; according to Black Rock spokesperson Chelsea Wilson, “Black Rock has had firewalls in place since last year which allows the firm to legally engage in federal campaign and independent expenditure or issue advocacy campaigns.” Crossroads GPS is not legally bound to disclose much of its information to the FEC, and it is impossible to know precisely what Crossroads GPS is paying Black Rock to do for it. The Berg campaign denies any coordination, saying in a statement: “While we do work with Black Rock, there is no coordination between our campaign and outside groups and we have no knowledge of what their plans are. We cannot control what outside groups will do.” Allison says that even if Berg’s campaign is being truthful, there are many ways campaigns and outside groups can legally coordinate, using a common advisor such as Black Rock or even individual consultants. “There can be coordination at the level of consultants, even if they’re not at same company,” he says, noting that many consultants know one another socially or have worked together in previous campaigns. It is also possible, and legal, for super PACs to find out where campaigns they are supporting are buying ads by contacting the campaigns of the opposing candidates, which keep track of such information. Forti, the CEO of Black Rock, is in a unique position to facilitate what reporter Alex Seitz-Wald calls “GOP non-coordination coordination,” as he “sits in the middle of a powerful nexus of outside spending groups and GOP political firms all run out of the same office suite in Alexandria, Virginia.” Charles Spies, the treasure of Romney’s Restore Our Future, says of Forti, “I don’t know of anybody who’s got as important of a role with the major outside organizations, both in 2010 and in 2012.” (Seitz-Wald 6/19/2012)
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