Follow The Money

Watchdogs Seek To Shed More Light On 'Dark Money;' It's Not Easy

civer of U.S. PIRG - Demos report on campaign money. i i
U.S. PIRG-Demos
civer of U.S. PIRG - Demos report on campaign money.
U.S. PIRG-Demos

A top concern raised by critics of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision was that it would unleash a torrent of poorly disclosed, if disclosed at all, spending by the superwealthy. Evidence continues to mount that's precisely what's happening.

A few people with a lot of money are responsible for the majority of contributions to superPACs, according to a new analysis by two watchdog groups.

A report called "Million-Dollar Megaphones" by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Demos found that outside organizations reported to the Federal Election Commission spending $167.5 million for the 2012 election cycle. And the report says the origin of $12.7 million — or 7.6 percent of that money — isn't known. That's just part of the "dark money" problem, the watchdogs say.

That dark money comes largely from so-called social-welfare organizations, which are known as 501(c)4 organizations, a reference to the section of the Internal Revenue code that mentions them. They, along with 501(c)6 business associations don't have to disclose their donors. That contrasts with superPACs which do.

Spending by 501(c)4 groups is outpacing that by superPACs and not by a little.

For those interested in transparency in the funding of U.S. elections, it gets worse. More than 50 percent of the TV ad spending has been by outside groups that don't have to disclose who gave them money.

What's more, the report says that its data analysis indicates the five outside groups that have spent the most on presidential campaign TV ads — a combined $53 million, according to Kantar CMAG, a firm that follows such spending — have reported less than 1 percent of that spending to the FEC. Those groups, in order of spending are Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, American Energy Alliance and The Environmental Defense Fund.

Then there's this: Only 47 individuals — each giving at least $1 million to superPACs — accounted for more than 57 percent of the money raised by superPACs during the current election cycle. And more than 94 percent of the total came from those 1,082 individuals who gave at least $10,000.

As NPR's Peter Overby, who closely follows money in politics, tells me:

"When we look at those 47 donors who account for 57 percent of superPAC money, we can't see the much larger sums flowing thru the c4s."

An example gives a sense of what we're talking about. Peter says during the first quarter of 2012, the the 501c4 Crossroads GPS outraised superPACc American Crossroads 4 to1.

All of this led the authors of the U.S. PIRG-Demos report to conclude:

"One might think of today's outside spending groups as megaphones for moguls and millionaires. The more money they pump in, the louder they're able to amplify their voices — until a relatively few wealthy individuals and interests are dominating our public square, drowning out the rest of us."

We at NPR have also been attempting to track superwealthy political donors during this election cycle with our "Million-Dollar Donors" special series.

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