What happens when you try to discover who’s behind dark money ads

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The sign that greeted me at 900 Michigan Ave, NE. (Click to see larger version.)

On a windy Thursday in D.C., I had a mission: I wanted to view the records of ad time purchased by a mysterious dark money group, Protect America’s Consumers.

I had searched our tool, Political Ad Sleuth, and found no results. Only broadcast television stations have to disclose their political ad information online, at least for now, and the ad I had seen was on CNN on Comcast in D.C. To view disclosures for ads run on cable, you still have to physically visit a location near you. Comcast’s website lists the D.C. location as 900 Michigan Ave., NE. I took the train there and found the building hidden behind an Enterprise Rent-A-Car:

Closed. I rattled the locked door of the administrative office and stood there uselessly for a minute before getting back on the train and heading to the location listed on the sign, an Xfinity retail store in a fancy new development at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

When I got there, I saw this:

Sigh.

After I waited for about 20 minutes, watching a giant TV playing The Wendy Williams Show and the same commercial for flea medication about seven times, I was on my way again. A very helpful man called the Michigan Avenue office and told me that while the service office was closed, the administrative office was open, and there would in fact be a security guard there to let me in if I just waited around long enough. (Lesson learned: Stand around uselessly more.)

So, I got back on the Metro, back to Michigan Avenue, back to the building behind an Enterprise. The door was still locked, but an employee happened to be returning and he let me in. Another very nice man, Eric, led me through an empty hallway and into a very tiny room with one old computer, which whirred like it was on its last legs, and no printer.

One of the FCC filings I was looking for. (Click to see larger version.)

Eric used the computer and navigated a list of PDFs, organized by market. We sat and looked through the list until we found the ones for Protect America’s Consumers. Eric was unable to print the PDFs because there was no printer, so I wrote down the details I needed and took some pictures with my phone. Mission accomplished, sort of.

My interest in this group was sparked in the same way it would be for many average citizens, that is to say people who aren’t money-in-politics writers: Watching TV, I saw an ad for a group that I hadn’t heard of, and wondered what the deal was. But thanks to the utterly arcane disclosure policies still in place, I had to take a morning and a Metro to find out even basic details about the ad buy — and I still have no idea who’s truly behind this group. Plus, most people aren’t writers for nonprofits; most people can’t take hours of a weekday to go hang out with Eric and look through files. Eric told me that in seven years of working there, I was only the second person he had helped look for ad files.

Another money in politics researcher in D.C., Anna Massoglia of OpenSecrets.org, had a similar experience when she tried to find out about ads being run by a super PAC on Fox Business Network during a GOP debate:

“Verizon FiOS TV makes public inspection files available to be viewed through a limited number of retail stores. … The staff had apparently been briefed not to let me touch the computer so I had to tell the staff members what search terms to use. The clerk helping me was originally hesitant to even let me look at the computer but eventually broke when he realized how many hundreds of file names we would be looking through. The store clerk was patient and continued running searches based on terms I told him such as “Baby Got PAC” and other individuals with ties to the group for over an hour. We performed searches and manually scrolled through the political folders in every region, the entire visit was ultimately fruitless.”

In January, the FCC announced that cable TV networks would have to post the same types of disclosures on political ads that broadcast stations have to post. Soon, people won’t have to go to their local cable administrative office to find out this information. It can’t come soon enough.