By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
An increasing number of organizations working to influence elections also are working to hide who is paying for their activities.
Several political organizations colloquially known as 527s are relying more on or switching into 501(c)(4) groups, the type of tax-exempt entity that the tax code uses for advocacy groups.
The 527s must disclose who gives them money; 501(c)(4)s do not have that requirement.
The trend, which was discovered by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, runs counter to one of the basic tenets of modern-day election law -- broad public disclosure. Voters generally have the right to know who is helping to elect their representatives and senators. Armed with such data, they can decide for themselves who, if anyone, is trying to buy their congressional representatives.
A lot of political influence is at stake if such transformations proliferate. In last year's elections, 527s spent $143.2 million. The biggest outlays on the Democratic side came from the Service Employees International Union, Emily's List and America Votes, a coalition of liberal groups. On the Republican side, the big spenders were the Progress for America Voter Fund, the College Republican National Committee and the Presidential Coalition.
There are many reasons that 527s might want to alter their stripes. The main one has nothing to do with concealment: The Federal Election Commission has been cracking down on 527s, insisting they cannot explicitly press for the election or the defeat of candidates.
But in trying to sidestep the crackdown, several 527s have chosen an alternative structure that is harder for the public to track. Tax-exempt groups of various types have always been able to keep their donors anonymous (except to the Internal Revenue Service). The exception to this, made in 2000, is the type of electioneering funds called 527s, which have to publicly name their contributors.
In recent years, one group that has leaned more heavily on its 501(c)(4) is Progress for America, once one of the largest GOP-leaning 527s. Another group is converting outright: the Club for Growth, which supports conservative, anti-tax candidates. According to a letter obtained by the Campaign Finance Institute, the club sees many benefits in its transformation, including secrecy. "Unlike in the past, your donations to the Club will not be disclosed to the public, except in very limited circumstances," wrote Patrick J. Toomey, the group's president.
Some experts doubt that the Club for Growth will be widely imitated. An organization cannot simply change its label to a 501(c); it must also alter its function so that it no longer primarily works on elections. Last week, Public Citizen, the liberal gadfly, formally complained that Americans for Job Security should not be allowed to operate as a 501(c)(6), or trade association, because of its large-scale electoral involvement.Companies to Reveal Extra Giving
Not every group is trying to duck for cover. Twelve major corporations have agreed to voluntarily disclose where their political giving goes, suggesting that there might be a countertrend among companies to tell the public more about where they are focusing their public policy spending -- even when they do not have to.
Aetna, Colgate-Palmolive, DuPont, FirstEnergy, Pfizer, WellPoint and Xcel Energy will report how much of their payments to trade associations are used for political purposes. Cigna, Chevron, EMC, General Motors and Lockheed Martin will reveal such "soft money" gifts as corporate donations to political advocacy groups.
The corporations were pressured into making these revelations by the Washington-based Center for Political Accountability and several activist pension funds that are demanding more transparency in how the money is spent. And they are not alone. Since 2005, 31 companies have agreed to extra disclosure as well as more board oversight of political expenditures.
The shareholders of three dozen additional companies are scheduled to vote on political disclosure resolutions this year, according to the Center for Political Accountability, which is funded by foundations including George Soros's.New Battleground of the Week
A new trade association, the Institutional Life Markets Association, was formed last week. Although there was no way to decipher the fact from its news release, the group was created to protect a new, multibillion-dollar market in the life insurance policies of individuals who no longer want them and sell them to investors.
Watch for the group to bump heads soon with such established powerhouses as the American Council of Life Insurers, which is not eager to see its products held to the end, so to speak, by some stranger waiting for a big payday. The new association's co-founders include Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and UBS.Democratic Hires of the Week
The Democratic takeover of Congress continues to create a bull market for former Democratic staffers in Washington lobbying shops.
Two ex-staffers to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have landed big jobs. Eric "Rick" Kessler, a former chief of staff in Dingell's personal office, has joined the new government relations arm of the law firm Dow Lohnes. Hogan & Hartson hired Reid P.F. Stuntz, for 10 years the minority staff director and chief counsel of the committee under Dingell.
The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association has chosen Scott DeFife, former policy staffer to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), as its top Democratic lobbyist.
The Washington Group, a unit of Omnicom, added three new Democrats: veteran lobbyists G. John O'Hanlon, Gerry Kavanaugh and Moses Boyd. It also promoted Democrat Rita Lewis to vice chairman.
Hewlett-Packard, the technology firm, hired Kristy Skupa Sternhell, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M . Reid (D-Nev.), as director of congressional affairs.
General Motors named Joseph B. Trahern director of federal legislative and regulatory affairs. Trahern was chief of staff to both Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.).
McKenna Long & Aldridge added Mac Campbell, for six years the tax counsel to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee. BKSH & Associates Worldwide hired Stefan L.B. Bailey, former legislative director for Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.).
Quinn Gillespie & Associates added Bonnie Hogue D uffy, a former Democratic aide on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, to co-manage its health lobbying. And the Livingston Group hired Jill A. Schuker, a former senior official in the Clinton and Carter administrations.
Ex-lawmakers of both political stripes are also getting jobs. Patton Boggs hired former representative Chris Bell (D-Tex.) as of counsel. And Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations, which appears to be in the midst of a major rebuilding effort, picked up former senator James M. Talent (R-Mo.).
Separately, Kevin Ring, a onetime member of the team once led by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has resigned as a lobbyist for Barnes & Thornburg. Ring, a former top aide to Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), has been under Justice Department scrutiny in the ongoing Abramoff political corruption probe.
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