A President Independent of Whom, Exactly?

L.A. Times sizes up a nonpartisan nonprofit's opaque funding

So, speaking of Americans Elect, the new, webby way to pick a president that has Tom Friedman’s radical centrist heart all aflutter, Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times has a good reported piece on the group today.

Unsurprisingly, Americans Elect has all sorts of ties to No Labels and Unity08, two recent non-partisan efforts that launched with much fanfare and quickly fizzled. And also unsurprisingly, given Friedman’s note that the group is backed by “some serious hedge-fund money,” Gold reports that “at least 11 of the 50 board members work in finance.”

But here’s the most interesting part:

The goal is bold, but the manner in which Americans Elect is pursuing its aims is highly unorthodox. Although it is attempting to qualify as a new party in California and other states, the group’s legal designation is that of a nonpolitical, tax-exempt social welfare organization.

Under that designation, Americans Elect has been able to keep private its financiers, raising questions about what forces are driving the massive undertaking.

And it’s clear that the current designation is the result of a choice by the group’s leaders—because Gold reports that they changed it from one that had required a greater level of disclosure.

One of the main financial backers is [COO] Elliot [Ackerman]’s father, Peter Ackerman, a private investment executive who made tens of millions of dollars working with junk bond trader Michael Milken in the 1980s. He alone has given at least $1.55 million to Americans Elect, according to tax documents the group filed last year while it was briefly organized as a political organization. In October, it changed its designation to a 501(c)4 social welfare group, as first noted by blogger Jim Cook, who has been tracking its activities.

Of course, that choice was necessary because the high rollers backing Americans Elect are poor, pitiful souls who might be bulled by those mean partisans if word got out:

Elliot Ackerman said Americans Elect does not take any money from special interests or political action committees, adding that it is up to donors to determine whether they want to be identified. “I think that’s an unfortunate testament to the status of our political landscape that people feel uncomfortable about disclosing the fact that they’re supporting an open nominating process,” he said.

Campaign finance watchdogs are, understandably, unnerved by these developments, while an Americans Elect lawyer tells the Times that the group is on sound legal footing, because it’s supporting a new nominating process rather than a specific candidate. It would be interesting to hear what experts like the crew at Election Law Blog think about that.

Regardless of how the group’s legal position holds up, there’s a real incongruity here. The United States has a system of laws that, however imperfect, aims to set common guidelines and enforce disclosure by rival parties as they compete in election contests. If it becomes possible to exempt yourself from those laws by declaring that you’re not actually a party, it won’t be surprising to see established groups start trying to take advantage of that loophole.

When disclosures aren’t required by law, of course, there’s a special role to be played by the press. Gold has delivered a good start here. And hey, I hear Tom Friedman may have good sources within Americans Elect. Maybe he can shed some light on who the other funders are?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.