The Ad Wars: How to Expose a Dishonest ‘Social Welfare’ Group
We all know that in the 2012 election season, outside groups fueled by unlimited checks from wealthy donors have been flooding America’s airwaves with campaign ads. Most of the attention in this sphere has focused on Super PACs, the turbocharged offspring of political action committees.
But Super PACs have in fact been outspent by another, more secretive type of political organization—nonprofits that declare their primary activity to be advancing “social welfare.” Dozens of so-called social welfare groups—such as the conservative Koch brothers’s Americans for Prosperity, the liberal Priorities USA, and Republican strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS—have been blanketing swing states with political messages, as the law allows. These organizations do not reveal their donors, and until 60 days before the general election, they were not required even to reveal their expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, as long as their ads do not endorse specific candidates.
None of this is illegal. But some of these social welfare groups do appear to have crossed the legal line. In August, a sweeping investigation by ProPublica found that many of them got formal approval and tax-exempt status from the IRS by misrepresenting their activities. A number of them, in fact, sailed through the IRS approval process by claiming that they would not spend money on influencing elections—only to turn around and purchase political ads as soon as the same day.
Last week, another ProPublica report revealed that a nonprofit that was running clearly political ads in the Ohio Senate race—ads that praised the Republican candidate, Josh Mandel, and attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. Sherrod Brown.That was the Government Integrity Fund, which had pledged to the IRS that it would not spend money on politics.
In the final sprint to the elections, many nonprofits are continuing to pour money into political ads—including some who misrepresented themselves to the IRS. On Tuesday, Politico reported that the nonprofit American Action Network will be launching a multimillion dollar ad campaign in partnership with the super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund on behalf of Republicans in the House of Representatives. This is a group that ProPublica found to have broadly misrepresented its spending in tax returns to minimize its political activity.