For anyone who hasn’t yet focused on the “shadowy army” of nonprofits spending record-breaking sums influencing the midterm elections, the New York Times’s Mike McIntire provided a very readable way into the subject in Sunday’s Week in Review.

McIntire attempted to find out who funds the nonprofit “issue advocacy” group, Coalition to Protect Seniors Inc, the group behind a TV ad featuring a diapered baby grumbling about how the health care reform bill “smells” possibly worse than his own diaper. The group has, to date, spent about $400,000 to help elect Republican candidates. McIntire didn’t get very far, concluding that “it is clearly going to take a lot more work to see through an organization that is about as transparent as a dirty diaper.” (Does this mean McIntire is still sniffing and there will be a follow-up piece in the near future?)

Here is McIntire explaining what he set out to do:

Who are the members of the coalition? Where do they get their money? And why are they spending hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking candidates for Congress around the country?

Obvious questions, and yet they are difficult to answer, given the increased use of tax-exempt organizations as vehicles for campaign spending.

Nonprofits can raise unlimited amounts, and spend a good percentage of that on political activities. But they are generally not required to publicly disclose their donors, making them appealing to moneyed interests who prefer to stay in the shadows.

A recent report by Public Citizen found that in the 2004 elections, 98 percent of outside groups disclosed the names of donors who paid for their political ads; this time around, only 32 percent have done so. The report suggested that groups were taking advantage of a loosening of disclosure requirements and loopholes. Meanwhile, the amount of money spent by these groups skyrocketed to more than $100 million as of last week, more than twice that of the midterms four years ago.

Reporters are paid to try to get around these barriers, and we have resources at our disposal that the average person does not. I’ll get on a plane if necessary to go confront someone, meet a source or check out an address. News organizations subscribe to public records databases, and go to court to try to force disclosure of important information.

To see just how hard it is to crack the secrecy that shrouds the vaguely named groups bombarding the airwaves, I went looking for one that seemed typical of the trend. The Coalition to Protect Seniors, with its attention-grabbing ads and middle-of-the-pack spending — about $400,000 as of last week — fit the bill.

I also decided to limit myself to the tools that an average voter might have: the Internet and a telephone.

Several steps later—including a brief, unproductive phone chat with a “nationally acclaimed jazz funk fusion choreographer”—McIntire had next to nothing, demonstrating just how in the shadows these “shadowy” groups actually are.

We know where the Coalition to Protect Seniors is spending its money (see this Washington Post chart based on expenditure reports required by the FEC) but we don’t know—and, as McIntire showed us, may never know—whose money the Coalition (whoever they are) is spending.

Just one small, mysterious piece of the “spending frenzy conducted largely in the shadows,” as the Washington Post describes it today in a report putting “interest-group spending for [the] midterm up fivefold from 2006.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.