LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
One of the questions surrounding the Tea Party movement has surfaced again: Who's paying the bills? Some Tea Party leaders announced earlier this month that theyre forming a fundraising corporation. The goal is to raise money from other corporations and wealthy individuals, but the identity of those donors does not have to be publicly disclosed.
NPRs Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: The head of the Memphis Tea Party is a burly businessman named Mark Skoda, a forceful presence on the National Tea Party scene and just as forceful at the Tea Party convention in Nashville, where he held a press conference to roll out the new fundraising operation.
Mr. MARK SKODA (Leader, Memphis Tea Party): Today, I'm glad to announce that we have incorporated the Ensuring Liberty Corporation. It's a 501(c)(4). We will be establishing the Ensuring Liberty PAC subsequent to that.
OVERBY: The PAC would be a normal political committee, following the contribution limits and full-disclosure requirements of federal election law.
The 501(c)(4) is another story. Skoda told reporters about the significance of having that tax-exempt status.
Mr. SKODA: As you know, election law allows 501(c)(4)s to raise and recruit funds that allow us to go ahead and encourage people to participate in the PAC. It allows us a greater latitude in which to execute our strategy.
OVERBY: And he made a pledge.
Mr. SKODA: We will do that in a systematic way, with transparency that is obviously lacking in too much of the political process today.
OVERBY: But a more complete description of the fundraising rules for a 501(c)(4) like the Ensuring Liberty Corporation would go like this: It can raise as much as it can get - no limits - from wealthy donors and from corporations.
And there's no disclosure - no possible blowback against the Ensuring Liberty Corporation for taking the money, or against a corporate donor for giving it. Skoda didn't respond yesterday to messages left on his office, home and cell phones. But the Ensuring Liberty Corporation wouldn't be the first ally of the Tea Party movement to cross paths with big money.
FreedomWorks, headed by former House majority leader and lobbyist Dick Armey, has said about 15 or 20 percent of its money comes from corporations.
And Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, has long been rumored to be financed by David Koch, of the family that owns Koch Industries. That's one of the biggest privately held companies in America, and the family has a long history of underwriting conservative causes.
David Koch confirmed the rumors at an AFP convention last fall. This audio is from the online news site Washington Independent, and it's a little rough.
Mr. DAVID KOCH (Koch Industries): Five years ago, my brother Charles and I provided the funds to start the Americans for Prosperity. And it's beyond my wildest dreams how AFP has grown into this enormous organization.
OVERBY: Spokeswoman Amy Payne said corporations are AFP's smallest group of donors, after individuals and foundations.
Now, the question here might be this: If corporations were fueling a powerful, new grassroots movement, would it matter to people in the movement?
Political scientist Joseph Lowndes isn't so sure it would. He's at the University of Oregon, and has written about the Tea Parties and other conservative movements. The us-against-them anger of Tea Partiers is aimed mostly at government. But Lowndes says he sees one important part of corporate activity that could raise their hackles.
Professor JOSEPH LOWNDES (Political Scientist, University of Oregon): Corporations don't seem, to me, to be the thing that really gets them in a lather in the same way, except for they do see, in their kind of, you know, partly right-on and partly conspiratorial understanding of the ways in which lobbyists work in Washington.
OVERBY: For instance, the corporate lobbyists that worked the angles in the health-care debate.
But for now, the only people likely to be upset by corporate funding for the movement would be the ones who've already dug in against Tea Party groups and are spoiling for a fight.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington
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