A Cheat Sheet to the Conservative Money Machine

New database will let anyone see how much right-leaning “dark money” groups are raising. (Note to the Right: You can do this too.)

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30: People listen as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his nomination acceptance speech during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 5, 2014, 11:09 a.m.

A Demo­crat­ic group is hop­ing to shine a light in­to an opaque corner of the con­ser­vat­ive money ma­chine, with a new search­able data­base of hun­dreds of right-lean­ing non­profit groups, found­a­tions, busi­ness leagues, wealthy in­di­vidu­als, and oth­er polit­ic­al play­ers whose ac­tions are dif­fi­cult to scru­tin­ize.

While su­per PACs have got­ten the most at­ten­tion in the post-Cit­izens United world, the area that troubles many cam­paign fin­ance watch­dogs the most are “dark money” groups, which are not re­quired to dis­close their donors or much else to the pub­lic.

Un­like polit­ic­al out­fits that must make reg­u­lar re­ports on their activ­it­ies to the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, these non­profit groups are reg­u­lated by the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice. And even though they are tech­nic­ally re­quired to make their an­nu­al IRS re­ports — known as 990s — avail­able to the pub­lic, the forms are usu­ally not avail­able on­line and can be dif­fi­cult or im­possible to ob­tain.

The new web­site, Con­ser­vat­iv­eTrans­par­ency.org, which of­fi­cially launches Thursday, puts all those forms in one user-friendly place, and uses the data from them and oth­er sources to track the flow of money among the vari­ous donors, ad­vocacy groups, polit­ic­al com­mit­tees, and can­did­ates.

“We wanted to put to­geth­er the most com­pre­hens­ive data­base around of the con­ser­vat­ive money that’s out there, but also make it very ac­cess­ible,” said Ed­die Vale, the vice pres­id­ent of Bridge Pro­ject, which cre­ated the web­site. “It’s one com­pre­hens­ive place where you can look at all of these groups.”

Users can browse by donors, re­cip­i­ent, or can­did­ate, or they can search for more-de­tailed in­form­a­tion to see how money moves between the groups. Users can also search an in­di­vidu­al donor’s name to see which groups he or she is af­fil­i­ated with.

Bridge Pro­ject, a non­profit af­fil­i­ated with the Demo­crat­ic su­per PAC Amer­ic­an Bridge, has been com­pil­ing the data­base of con­ser­vat­ive groups for sev­er­al years, but is now rolling out the web­site to make its in­form­a­tion more eas­ily ac­cess­ible for the pub­lic.

On Thursday, it is also re­leas­ing two re­ports based on the in­form­a­tion in its data­base. One is ba­sic­ally a cheat sheet of the top 33 con­ser­vat­ive play­ers in the coun­try, with a bit of back­ground in­form­a­tion on each. That in­cludes how much money they’ve been spent in the past few elec­tion cycles, what they do, who they have sup­por­ted, and oth­er rel­ev­ant facts.

The entry on the Koch-backed Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, for ex­ample, states that the group spent $122 mil­lion in the 2012 elec­tion, only $36.4 mil­lion of which was re­por­ted to the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion as “polit­ic­al” spend­ing.

The second re­port is the first in a com­ing series of state-based re­ports, which Bridge Pro­ject hopes will help drive its mes­sage home. Be­cause cam­paign fin­ance is­sues are ab­stract and dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand, the group is aim­ing to, as Vale says, “take it out of the kind of 10,000-foot cam­paign fin­ance world and put [it] in people’s daily lives.”

The re­port fo­cuses on North Car­o­lina, which Vale calls “ground zero” for out­side right-wing money. Re­pub­lic­ans took con­trol of both cham­bers of the swing state’s Le­gis­lature and gov­ernor­ship in 2010, end­ing a cen­tury-plus reign of the state’s Demo­crat­ic Party, and have since been busy en­act­ing a ver­it­able wish list of con­ser­vat­ive policy items. Don’t like that the state re­duced long-term-un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits? Blame the in­fra­struc­ture out­lined in this re­port, Vale says.

As Bridge Pro­ject sees it, the state is a “case study” for how deep-pock­eted play­ers can wield out­size in­flu­ence. “The GOP’s suc­cess in North Car­o­lina wasn’t merely a mir­ror of the tea-party wave that be­nefited Re­pub­lic­ans across the na­tion in 2010; it was part of a strategy craf­ted on the na­tion­al level and car­ried out with the co­oper­a­tion of prom­in­ent con­ser­vat­ive in­terest groups and donors, in­clud­ing the Koch broth­ers,” the re­port states.

One big caveat to all this data, Bridge Pro­ject ac­know­ledges, is that ex­ist­ing laws make it im­possible to track all the money out there. Money raised by re­cip­i­ents from un­known donors who are not in the data­base is not in­cluded, the web­site notes.

The oth­er big caveat is that Demo­crats, of course, have their own polit­ic­al non­profit groups — in­clud­ing Bridge Pro­ject. To be sure, con­ser­vat­ives have gen­er­ally had more re­sources in this area and have fought dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments, while sim­ul­tan­eously push­ing to loosen laws even fur­ther.

It’s an ad­mit­tedly in­com­plete pic­ture from a par­tis­an source, but in a no­tori­ously opaque world, this is at least one good flash­light.

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