Rulings Cover Political Donors In Veil Of Secrecy A growing number of independent groups are spending money to promote or attack candidates this midterm election season. It's a result of rulings by the courts and the Federal Election Commission -- rulings that, taken together, allow corporations to funnel money into electoral politics anonymously.

Rulings Cover Political Donors In Veil Of Secrecy

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The pace of spending for the fall elections has begun to pick up, especially for independent groups that have new freedom to raise and spend millions that since the Supreme Court in January removed limits on the contributions they can seek from corporations and unions.

You can measure how much these groups are spending, $2.4 million dollars in the last 17 days, for example. But it's hard to tell where a lot of it comes from as many of the groups are operating behind a new veil of secrecy. It's a veil created by the combined rulings of the Supreme Court, a federal appeals court and the Federal Election Commission.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Only a few people around Washington have a really comprehensive view of the political ads that go on TV and who's behind them.

One of those few is Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. When I talked to him this afternoon, he was shuffling through his logs.

Mr. EVAN TRACEY (President, Campaign Media Analysis Group): You know, Americans for Prosperity and, you know, Committee for Truth in Politics, League of American Voters, Small Business Action Committee, Emergency Committee for Israel - that's just in the last 12 hours.

OVERBY: Tracey looks at regional comparisons to 2006 - when Democrats were pressing beleaguered Republicans in the last midterm elections.

Mr. TRACEY: And when you do that, the spending is up about 50 percent in some cases already.

OVERBY: Helping to drive that surge is the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision - the invitation for corporations to take sides in elections. After that, two lesser-known decisions opened the door wider.

A federal appeals court said people can give as much as they want to groups that advertise for or against a candidate. The so-called independent expenditure committees just can't coordinate with the candidate or party.

And finally, the Federal Election Commission rolled the two rulings together and came up with this: These independent expenditure committees can take unlimited contributions from individuals and from unions and corporations. Because of a loophole in the FEC rules, they don't have to report it.

Mr. LARRY NOBLE (Campaign Finance Lawyer): Unless the donor is giving for that specific ad, the donor will not have to be disclosed.

OVERBY: That's Larry Noble, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington.

Mr. NOBLE: So, effectively, these corporations that don't want to be seen as supporting candidates can now give the same money they would've spent on their own to another organization to spend that money.

OVERBY: Take for example the Coalition to Protect Seniors. It's been attacking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: Democratic senators and congressmen, like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, voted for the new bill, which will cut $455 billion from Medicare.

OVERBY: A tough ad filled with pictures of forlorn senior citizens.

The coalition's ads mention several health care companies by name. But two of them said the ads aren't theirs. So did their trade association, America's Health Insurance Plans.

The coalition isn't registered with the FEC nor as a nonprofit with the IRS. Its website doesn't list a phone number or address, and nobody at its email address replied to NPR last week or this.

The FEC created this veil of secrecy in a 5-1 vote. The dissenter was one of the Democrats, Steven Walther. He argued that the commission's rule-making brushed aside important federal laws on contribution limits and disclosure.

Mr. STEVEN WALTHER (Chairman, U.S. Federal Election Commission): Those statutes are still in the books. They've not been overruled, and they're still there.

OVERBY: It's possible that the FEC will make the independent expenditure committees reveal their donors in a later rule-making process.

But until that happens, limits are out and veils are in.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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