Dark money group’s spending tops $714,000 against Puerto Rico debt relief bill

Screen shot from Center for Individual Freedom YouTube page

The debate over a deal to help Puerto Rico handle its crippling debt obligations continues to rage in Congress — and on the airwaves. As we reported in April, the Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF), a 501(c)(4) dark money group, is running an aggressive ad campaign against any sort of debt relief package. That spending has now topped at least $714,400, according to analysis of broadcast tv contract data using our Political Ad Sleuth tool. All of the ads purchased were in the Washington, D.C., media market during news broadcasts and during Sunday public affairs shows, such as Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday.  

POLITICO, using data from the Tracking Firm, estimates CFIF’s ad buy to be just north of $1.4 million. The Political TV Ad Archive has estimated that 1,005 individual ads have aired on cable and broadcast television stations. There have also been reports of ads on cable as well as radio ads in Utah, which is home to Committee on Natural Resources chair Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is one of the key negotiators of the bill, whose committee has jurisdiction.

Other negotiators of the bill include lobbyists, some of whom worked on similar campaigns for debtholders. First-quarter lobbying disclosures from Open Secrets confirm that former Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., has been paid $40,000 to lobby on behalf of the “Bondholders of Puerto Rico,” ostensibly opposing any sort of restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt. The American Continental Group is also being paid by the Bondholders of Puerto Rico to the tune of $50,000 so far in 2016.

Mack also lobbied on behalf of the Argentine Task Force, which represented debt holders that used “vulture fund” tactics, similar to Puerto Rico’s case, to buy cheap Argentine debt and then hold out for a maximum payout.

Other groups involved on the side of the bondholders are the 60 Plus Association and the Main Street Bondholders. Both have ties to the DCI Group, a lobbying shop known for savvy and shadowy use of coalition and nonprofit groups to advocate for its clients.

While we have a good idea who is behind the lobbying campaign, CFIF isn’t required to disclose their donors — so we can’t be sure who’s bankrolling the ad buy.

Additionally, CFIF’s ads have earned poor marks from fact checkers at The Washington Post, giving the group a “Two Pinocchios” rating after vetting the ads. CFIF disputes this assessment.  

Most, if not all, of the ad spending was done before May 18, when House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told POLITICO that a new debt restructuring deal had been reached with the White House. As this newly negotiated deal receives scrutiny from public, and as the issue is debated in Congress, we wouldn’t surprised to see plenty more ads in D.C. and across the country.