Question Marks Surround Key Election Advertiser

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One of the most hard-fought, expensive midterm election seasons in history is nearing its end.

Mapping The Network

NPR's Peter Overby and Andrea Seabrook lay out the connections between self-styled independent groups operating this election season.

In just the past few weeks, political groups have bought TV airtime worth tens of millions of dollars in dozens of races. NPR is tracking the hidden flow of corporate money in partisan politics this season — the wealthy donors, the torrent of attack ads, the network of supposedly independent groups coordinating their campaigns.

Amid all that, there's one group that's particularly hard to figure out: the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity.

Its name tells you almost nothing. It is not a commission by any normal definition, and who's not for hope, growth and opportunity?

Conservative strategists say the group is one of three important advertisers in the Republican drive to win a big House majority.

But the commission is not a formal political committee. And it doesn't say anything — at least not in public — about promoting GOP candidates.

In fact, in public, it hardly says anything at all.

But it does run some pretty creative ads, including a mock sales pitch for a commemorative coin — "a piece of American history, enshrining forever President Obama increasing our national debt."

"They've probably run some of the more entertaining ads this cycle," says Evan Tracey, who tracks political ads for a living at the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "They don't look like a lot of the ads that are being shown over and over and over, by candidates and the parties and the other groups in a lot of these races."

The "commemorative coin" ad is running against candidates in several states. It follows the Republicans' broad strategy this year of linking the local Democrat to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the national debt.

Sounds like a political campaign, right?

Well, the commission isn't calling it that. It's organized as a nonprofit, social welfare organization, and it says its mission is to "advance the principle that sustained and expanding economic growth is central to America's economic future."

NPR acquired a copy of the group's official IRS filing from March. One question on the form asks if the organization plans to spend any money to influence elections.

It answered no.

William Canfield, the commission's general counsel, filled out and signed that tax form. Canfield is a longtime Republican attorney in Washington.

When reached by phone, Canfield shrugged off a couple of questions about the commission, and then said, "You're not going to get anything out of me, so let's just end this right now." And he hung up.

NPR also tried to reach another Republican veteran associated with the commission. As a party strategist, Scott Reed ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. As a lobbyist, his client list includes companies in health insurance, chemicals, technology and manufacturing. He didn't return NPR phone calls to his office over a two-week period.

But there's really no question that the group's ads are political — despite what it reports to the IRS — says Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Funding An Attack Ad: How The Money Flowed In 2008

Two years ago, NPR traced the money going to a pro-Democratic "independent" political group that put out an ad attacking Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

"There's not a whole lot of gray area as to whether these are about issues," Tracey says. "They're strictly about politics and elections."

And the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity isn't the only one blurring the line. This fall, an entire network of supposedly independent groups has orchestrated a nationwide campaign for Republicans. There's a lesser effort on the Democratic side. And because these groups are nonprofits, not political committees, they have to disclose to the Federal Election Commission only when they run ads that identify individual candidates.

The Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity, however, reports nothing to the FEC.

There's also the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC. When any political advertiser buys airtime on a TV station, the FCC says it has to give the station a report, listing how much it paid for the airtime, when the ads will run and which candidates are identified in the ads.

There, too, the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity withholds critical information. When NPR viewed the commission's filings at two stations in Pittsburgh earlier this month, whole sections were left blank — including one for identifying the targets of its attack ads.

That leaves the IRS as the government agency regulating these hidden-money groups.

But Ofer Lion, a lawyer who is an expert on tax-exempt organizations, says the IRS is just not set up to oversee political groups — and that means they are essentially unregulated.

"They are well aware that the IRS is not very interested in sort of stepping into the shoes, I think, of the Federal Election Commission," Lion says.

At this rate, the election will be long over before anything is known about the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity.

You'll probably see more of its ads, though. The commission says it will communicate its "public welfare message ... through all forms of mass communication."

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