If You Can't Join 'Em, Beat 'Em? : Secret Money Project A liberal strategist doesn't try to match conservative deep pockets.
NPR logo If You Can't Join 'Em, Beat 'Em?

If You Can't Join 'Em, Beat 'Em?

At least that's the strategy for a new liberal 501c4, Accountable America.

Tom Matzzie, formerly Washington director for MoveOn.org, today announced the group and its strategy: to scare off big donors who might contribute to Swift Boat-style attack ads against Barack Obama.

It's a flip from four years ago, when liberals threw big bucks into attack ads of their own. With all that cash, they still couldn't undo the damage that the initially low-budgeted Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did to John Kerry.

Now, Obama doesn't want any high-spending groups freelancing on his behalf. With donors thus discouraged, Matzzie has a new approach... and it's laid out in the jump, along with some perspective.

Accountable America is mailing letters to 10,000 wealthy conservative donors -- Matzzie says they paid dearly for the list -- with a warning that the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission closely monitor the campaign-season activities of 501c and 527 groups.

"If you want to support your candidates of choice," the letter says, "the most secure way remains a hard-dollar contribution. The maximum legal donation is $2,300 per election." The letter, of course, is aimed at donors who are presumably thinking of writing checks for $50,000 to $1 million or so, to independent groups, not to the campaign committee.

Matzzie's also got a Wanted poster out -- $100,000 for information that leads to a legal finding against a 501c or 527 group, for either a criminal or regulatory violation.

And he says Accountable America may run ads to put a spotlight on donors who support controversial groups -- or who give to the same groups as other donors who have their own controveries.

This raises all sorts of questions about First Amendment rights, of donors and of Accountable America. Conservatives call Matzzie's strategy McCarthyism. Judicial Watch, a usually conservative watchdog group, promptly suggested that Accountable America had violated a law originally enacted to stop Ku Klux Klan intimidation of African-American voters.

But it's also true that money to independent groups is down on both sides. McCain and, even more forcefully, Obama have warned donors to stay away from the outside players. Matzzie came up with this strategy because three other groups, the Fund for America, Campaign to Defend America and Progressive Media USA, all flopped for lack of funds.

Indeed. When they're not being quoted by name, strategists on both sides say big donors have been scared off. Not by the likes of Tom Matzzie, but by the Federal Election Commission. After the '04 elections, the commission investigated Swift Boat Vets and several other independent groups. Ultimately, it fined them for violating the campaign finance laws.

What's more important here, though, is that investigators subpoenaed some of the big donors. The feds wanted to know whether money had been solicited by groups intending to influence voters --basically, the dividing line between regulated and unregulated money.

Donors didn't like those questions, the strategists told us. And they certainly didn't like the subpoenas.

Secret Money Project