It was billed as a free Republican National Convention event that nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity was holding to honor two of its big funders, conservative billionaire David Koch and North Carolina businessman and political donor Art Pope. But when Sunlight tried to join the party on Thursday afternoon, the door was closed to us.
Sunlight asked for credentials ahead of time because we are watching the activities of the “super donors” in the 2012 election: David and his brother Charles Koch have taken on an increasingly important role in politics, and the brothers and their friends plan to raise and donate $400 million to elect conservative officials and Gov. Mitt Romney.
About a week ago, two Sunlight Foundation employees received two tickets via email to attend the event. Then, on Monday, another email informed us that our tickets had been revoked and we had to apply for a press pass. We were denied that pass too, as were other reporters who went through the same process.
In an email hours before the event responding to another request for a ticket, an AFP spokesman linked the refusal to a recent blog post that he had protested.
The group’s spokesman, Levi Russell, wrote, "I never got a response from my most recent email regarding your inaccurate portrayal of Americans for Prosperity. I’m surprised that gaining entrance to a reception is a higher priority for you. Based on recent experience, you’re willing to write articles that are filled with inaccuracies, and not interested in making corrections."
Russell referred to a blog post that discussed an AFP filing with the Federal Election Commission that provided a state-by-state breakdown of its election ad spending despite the fact that the FEC does not require that level of detail for general election spending. It seemed to be unusual transparency for a group that keeps much of its financial activity — most notably, the names of donors — secret.
Russell objected to the characterization of AFP's filing as a misstep. "The states where AFP is running ads are hardly a mystery," he wrote Sunlight in an email. "We’ve released it numerous times in press releases, and given the details to political reporters in numerous conference calls." Sunlight continues to regard the disclosure as newsworthy because AFP's previous releases of information about its advertising have been selective; because of the lack of laws requiring public disclosure, there is no way of knowing whether the record is complete. Indeed, during the recent gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin, AFP did not even file with local election officials but a project by the Gannett newspapers in the state millions in spending for television ads by the group.
At the event, Russell denied that Sunlight was being singled out, saying we couldn't come in because the event was over-capacity. He also said press access was only open to officially credentialed media outlets. Yet one of the reporters shut out was Michael Isikoff of NBC News.
Russell also objected being recorded: “This isn’t a reportable event; you’re not a credentialed reporter at this event," he said.
According to Russell, approximately 40 reporters were credentialed for the event.
One reporter who did get inside, Melanie Mason of the Los Angeles Times, said that about 15 reporters were on hand. Another reporter, Nick Confessore of the New York Times, tweeted about the event:
Reporters who were denied entry waited outside the building, a state-of-the-art medical training center, as event-goers passed through the doors. When news outlet Al Jazeera starting filming the door, a woman working the event threatened to call the police unless they left and insisted that the sidewalk was private property. A policeman promptly approached the reporters to contradict the AFP aide, pointing out that the press had the right to be there.
(Photo credit: Keenan Steiner)