Following The Money Behind Mystery Attack Ads Democrat Peter DeFazio is considered a shoo-in for re-election in his Oregon congressional district. So why is a mystery organization running attack ads against him? And who's behind the ads?
NPR logo

Following The Money Behind Mystery Attack Ads

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130291350/130293204" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Following The Money Behind Mystery Attack Ads

Following The Money Behind Mystery Attack Ads

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130291350/130293204" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, there's a lot of talk about how it could change politics. That decision basically lifted restrictions on how much money corporations could spend on political ads.

And so, as a result, there's been an explosion of recently formed groups trying to take advantage of the new rules. Some are known as 501(c)(4)s, which is a tax designation; others are basically super PACs, groups with lofty sounding names like Concerned Taxpayers or Americans for Values or Crossroads.

But the rules don't always require many of those groups to say who they are or how they're funded. And a few weeks ago, that problem became clear in Oregon's 4th Congressional District, when the incumbent Democrat Peter DeFazio got an urgent call.

Representative PETER DeFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon's 4th District): My campaign staff said that there's something new. We don't know what it is or who it's coming from.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Politicians Nancy Pelosi and Peter DeFazio made a mess of our economy. Their policies aren't working. It's time for change.

RAZ: It was a slick attack ad unlike anything DeFazio's opponent had run before, except his opponent didn't run it.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Concerned Taxpayers of America is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Rep. DeFAZIO: You know, I didn't know the name of the group, but I figured it was one of these new groups that have been formed under Citizens United. And, you know, the ad was very, very sophisticated. I knew it wasn't my opponent. I would pay money to put my opponent's ads up.

RAZ: DeFazio's opponent, Art Robinson, was delighted when he saw the ad. But he says he had no idea what Concerned Taxpayers of America was.

Mr. ART ROBINSON (Republican, Congressional Candidate): I really know nothing about the organization and I haven't been trying to find out because I think that's the legal position I'm supposed to take. I wouldn't distance myself from them because I agree with what they say.

RAZ: Now, here's the thing: The Republican National Committee considered Peter DeFazio's re-election such a shoo-in, it decided not to waste any money fighting him.

But his opponent, Art Robinson, is a vocal climate change skeptic. And so, someone we don't really know who set up a group called Concerned Taxpayers of America earlier this summer and decided to spend big money in an otherwise sleepy congressional district to get rid of Peter DeFazio.

So, DeFazio did some digging. And he found that in its brief filing with the FEC, Concerned Taxpayers of America uses a mailing address of a townhouse on Capitol Hill. So, he brought along a couple of reporters with him to knock on the door.

Rep. DeFAZIO: They're kind of in this nondescript townhouse right opposite the power plant, which isn't the greatest location. I'm beginning to think it's a little weird for people who can afford $100,000 a week of television against me.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Rep. DeFAZIO: Hello.

So I go up and knock on the door, no answer. They had a big mail slot, so I looked through it and I kind of saw what I thought was movement, so I just shouted through the mail slot, I said, hey.

Hello.

Would you come to the door, please? Hello. Finally, this fellow came to the door kind of reluctantly.

Hi. Are you Jason Miller?

Unidentified Man #1: No.

Rep. DeFAZIO: No? You don't know Jason Miller?

Unidentified Man #1: No. No, I don't, sir.

RAZ: The whole exchange was recorded by The Washington Post. And in it, you hear DeFazio asking for a man named Jason Miller. He's listed as the group's treasurer on that FEC filing.

Miller is not a grassroots activist. He's a paid Republican consultant. The person who answered the door claiming not to know a Jason Miller was actually lying.

And no one knows if Concerned Taxpayers of America is really a group of people at all. But under the new rules, Miller may not have to disclose any of the names of the people who fund them.

Now, we call Jason Miller and he declined to come on the program. But he did say, and he's right about this, that everything he's doing is now perfectly legal. And even Peter DeFazio can't argue with that.

Rep. DeFAZIO: They are doing all that's required by the law, as much as it's been eviscerated by the Supreme Court in Citizens United, which means there's very little law left. They're required to have a website. They have a website, but that's also a dead drop. It's a clipart website. It says their folks, so I guess maybe there's more than one of them. But, of course, there's no way to communicate with them. You can't join. You can't send them money. You can't go to their event.

RAZ: I mean, going back to this idea that they're not doing anything unlawful, whether one wants to make a value judgment on that or not, can you really blame them? I mean, they want to defeat you and they're not breaking any laws and, you know, money talks now.

Rep. DeFAZIO: If they're gutless worms, I can't blame them. But they are gutless worms, come on, come on out of the dark. Tell me who you are. Are you Wall Street? Are you Big Oil? I mean, this is all pretty shady stuff. And, you know, the Citizens United case and the right wing activist Supreme Court, overturning 100 of precedent has just opened the floodgate.

RAZ: Let's say that this is the new political reality for the next two, three and beyond election cycles, are you going to have to figure out how to adapt to this?

Rep. DeFAZIO: Well, the American people are going to have to figure out how to adapt to this and how to fight back. And I'm hoping to provide some guidance and energize some people in that these seats should not be for sale to anonymous out-of-state powerful interest, whoever they are.

RAZ: That's Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

Congressman DeFazio, thank you so much.

Rep. DeFAZIO: Thanks, Guy. Appreciate the opportunity.

RAZ: So, who's getting most of the money and why now? We asked our correspondent Peter Overby, who covers money and politics to explain.

PETER OVERBY: There are a couple of court decisions that really change the rules. One of them is the Supreme Court's decision Citizens United...

RAZ: The famous one, yeah.

OVERBY: ...right - let corporations and unions spend as much as they want to attack or promote candidates. They can't give money to the candidates, but they can be in the battle, running attack ads, which is what most of these groups do.

RAZ: So, basically, these court decisions kind of open the floodgates, all of this money came into politics, all this unrestricted money. And now, for the first time, these groups can sort of form very quickly and raise unlimited amounts of money and basically say, Peter Overby running for Congress in Michigan, we don't like you. We're going to defeat you.

OVERBY: Yeah, that's right. And you have groups that come out of nowhere and, you know, just start running attack ads.

RAZ: Now, we just, of course, heard from Congressman Peter DeFazio...

OVERBY: Right.

RAZ: ...from Oregon. He's been targeted by this group, registered with the FEC earlier this summer, a group that turns out isn't much of a group at all. I guess it turns out that this isn't all that unique, right?

OVERBY: Right. Just getting ready to talk to you, I came across a group, Citizens for a Working America PAC, which was set up about a month ago, run by a consultant, it seems. They just dropped $250,000 attacking Democratic Congressman John Spratt in South Carolina. And Spratt's people have no idea where this came from.

RAZ: They don't like Spratt. They want to target him. And previously, in previous elections, they could not do this?

OVERBY: In previous elections, it wasn't as easy to do it. There were more legal hoops that you had to jump through.

RAZ: So that we have a sense of how much of this money is going to Republican-leaning groups versus Democratic-leaning groups?

OVERBY: We have a sense of how much is being spent. And right now, it's heavily lopsided toward the GOP. It's like 7-to-1 ratios like that.

RAZ: Wow. Peter, I'm interested in this group called Americans for New Leadership. You've reported a bit on them. And I guess I say a bit because it's really hard to find out a whole lot about any of these groups. This one is targeting Harry Reid, the majority leader. And they're running ads against him. Let's hear a brief clip of that.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: On the real issues, the issues that count, Harry Reid is just wrong. Wrong on his votes. Wrong in his record. Wrong for Nevada. Americans for New Leadership is responsible for the content of this ad.

RAZ: So, obviously, they are backing Harry Reid's opponent, Sharron Angle. Do we know much about this group?

OVERBY: No. You look at their disclosure reports at the Federal Election Commission and what you see is very skimpy information about, you know, the group's address. They report no donors and they report the expenditure. So you have how much money they spend and the name of the consultant.

RAZ: And in this case, they've already spent something like $300,000 attacking Harry Reid. But this is all aboveboard. I mean, what these groups are doing is perfectly legal.

OVERBY: Right.

RAZ: Let me ask you this question: Could you imagine a scenario where, say, there's a CEO of a company that has an interest in getting government contracts, and let's say there's a member of Congress who's investigating that company. Could that CEO say, you know what, we want to get rid of that member of Congress and we're going to fund some new group and we want that group to focus all of their ads against that member, could that happen?

OVERBY: Absolutely, yeah. And, you know, it could be happening now. Not to get too dramatic about it, but because there isn't enough disclosure on the donor side of things. You know, it could be happening and we just don't know it.

RAZ: That's NPR's Peter Overby. He covers money, power and influence.

Peter, thank you so much.

OVERBY: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: Earlier this summer, Democrats in the House passed something called the Disclose Act. It would require all of these groups to say who is funding them. Now in the Senate, the bill stalled on a Republican filibuster.

And Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, one of the bill's biggest supporters, worries that for now, anonymous money in politics will become the norm.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): You know, it's interesting, I came home a weekend not too long ago and my mother who's a very stalwart member of the Democratic Party said to me, oh, I saw on the paper where the Democrats have outraised the Republicans.

I said, no, mother, the Republicans are just putting their money somewhere else where no one knows who's giving it, because instead of giving to the Republican National Committee and Michael Steele, a lot of these are giving to Karl Rove. And Karl Rove is running these groups, and these are big million dollar checks that are being written by Lord only knows who.

RAZ: Can you imagine, though, you know, the next cycle or maybe subsequent election cycles when Democrats actually are raising more money from these 501(c)(4)s or do you think that the way they're set up, it will naturally benefit Republicans?

Sen. McCASKILL: The big business interests have generally favored the Republican Party and they continue to do so. But even if, let's just say that the world turned upside down and all of a sudden major business interest wanted to write millions of dollars in checks to help Democrats that shouldn't change the basic proposition. That is that the voters - this isn't about me or my election or Mitch McConnell and his election or who's in charge. This is about whether or not the voters have the right to know. And I feel very strongly whether I'm a senator or whether I've been kicked out on my you know what, that the voters have a right to know who's paying for things, especially when it comes to political advertising. I just think that's something that should be all-American.

RAZ: That's Missouri Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill speaking to me from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thank you so much.

Sen. McCASKILL: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.