MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
We are coming to the end of one of the most hard fought and expensive midterm elections in history. In just the past few weeks, political groups have bought TV airtime worth tens of millions of dollars. NPR is tracking the flow of hidden money in politics this season: the wealthy donors, the torrent of attack ads, the network of supposedly independent groups.
Today, NPR's Peter Overby and Andrea Seabrook report on one group that's especially hard to track.
ANDREA SEABROOK: The Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity. Its name tells you almost nothing. It's not a commission by any normal definition. And who's not for hope, growth and opportunity?
PETER OVERBY: The commission is one of three important advertisers, according to conservative strategists, 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.
SEABROOK: It does run some pretty creative ads, though, like this one, a mock sales pitch for a commemorative coin.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man: Now, you can own a piece of American history, enshrining forever President Obama increasing our national debt to a staggering $13.4 trillion...
Mr. EVAN TRACEY (President, Campaign Media Analysis Group): They've probably run some of the more entertaining ads this cycle.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man: ...you can own this prize collectible for just your share of the national debt, plus all the taxes, what else you can think of...
Mr. TRACEY: So probably a pretty good chance to cut through, because they don't look a lot like 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.
OVERBY: Evan Tracey tracks political ads for a living at the Campaign Media Analysis Group. This ad is running against House 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.
SEABROOK: Sounds like a political campaign, right? Well, the commission isn't calling it that. It's organized as a nonprofit, social welfare organization and says its mission is to, quote, "advance the principle that sustained and expanding economic growth is central to our economic future."
OVERBY: NPR acquired a copy of the group's official IRS filing from last March. One question on the form asks if the organization plans to spend any money to influence elections. It answered no.
SEABROOK: William Canfield, the commission's general counsel, filled out and signed that tax form. Canfield is a longtime Republican attorney here in Washington, and we managed to reach him by phone. After shrugging off a couple of questions about the commission, though, Canfield said, quote, "You're not going to get anything out of me, so let's just end this right now." And he hung up.
OVERBY: But regardless of what the commission tells the IRS, there's really no question that its ads are political, says Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Mr. TRACEY: There's not a whole lot of gray area as to whether these are about issues. They're strictly about politics and elections.
OVERBY: The Commission on Hope, Growth and 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. We've mapped a big part of that network at npr.org. There's a lesser effort this year on the Democratic side. And because these groups are nonprofits, not political committees, they only have to disclose to the Federal Election Commission when they run ads that identify individual candidates. The Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity, however, reports nothing to the FEC.
SEABROOK: Then there's the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. 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 and Opportunity withholds critical information.
When we visited two TV stations in Pittsburgh earlier this month, we found the commission's filings left whole sections blank, including the one for identifying the targets of its attack ads.
OVERBY: That leaves the IRS as the government agency regulating these hidden-money groups. We spoke to a lawyer named Ofer Lion. He's an expert on tax-exempt organizations. Lion says the IRS is just not set up to oversee political groups, and that means the groups are essentially unregulated.
Mr. OFER LION (Lawyer): 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.
SEABROOK: So at this rate, the election will be long over before we know anything more about the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity.
OVERBY: You'll probably see more of its ads, though. The commission says it will communicate its, quote, "public welfare message through all forms of mass communication."
SEABROOK: And Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.
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