The News Without Transparency: Reports highlight lack of information available on 501(c)4s

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Recent reporting and analysis by ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group have brought a certain dark money group, the Government Integrity Fund, into the light.

The Government Integrity Fund is registered as a 501(c)4, a type of nonprofit permitted to run issue ads to influence the outcome of elections without disclosing the names its donors to the Federal Election Commission.

Thanks to a long-anticipated ruling by the Federal Communications Commission in August, broadcast stations are now required to make information about political ad buys available online. That FCC decision, along with efforts by the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Ad Sleuth and ProPublica’s Free the Files projects to aggregate the more than 30,000 filings on the FCC database so far, have helped to shed more light on the money these groups are spending and the people and interest groups behind the influence.

ProPublica reported that the Government Integrity Fund has spent more than $1 million on television ads this election cycle on the Ohio Senate race opposing Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and supporting his Republican challenger, Josh Mandel. Paperwork filed at one of the TV stations where the ad ran revealed that the group is chaired by lobbyist Tom Norris, who employs  a former top Mandel staffer, Joel Riter, at his firm.

Sunlight reporter Jake Harper also found the Government Integrity Fund pumping money into a competitive Connecticut House race. The group has spent $1.1 million to support Republican Andrew Roraback.

Until recently we knew very little about the Government Integrity Fund and other groups like it because such politically active nonprofits are not required to list the names of principals in filings with the FEC. They are, however, required to do so at television stations where they buy ads. The FCC’s decision to put that paperwork online — a ruling advocated by Sunlight and Free Press, our partner in the Ad Sleuth project — along with reporting that it made possible, helped make critical information available to voters about who is trying to influence their votes.

Most recently, a document unearthed on Political Ad Sleuth revealed that Jonathan Ferrell is also involved with the group, though it’s unclear what he does at the Government Integrity Fund. The file also lists William Todd as the treasurer of the organization.  A Democratic political blog in Ohio has identified him as a Columbus lawyer who once ran unsuccessfully against the city’s Democratic mayor, Michael Coleman. That’s more information than was previously known.

However, we are still missing an important piece of the 501(c)4 puzzle: donors. Nonprofits can spend unlimited amounts of money to buy airtime and run shadow campaigns without revealing the sources of the funding for the influence they are trying to exercise. Super PACs, on the other hand, do have to disclose their donors, but those can be “dead end disclosures” when the donors are nonprofit groups like the Government Integrity Fund.

In the case of the Government Integrity Fund, the group has created an affiliated super PAC called the Government Integrity Fund Action Network, and funneled some of its money there. That is the super PAC identified as pumping money into the Connecticut House race by the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group. Will we ever get the names of the actual donors? History says it’s not likely.

“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. View the entire series here! If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at rsibley@sunlightfoundation.com.

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