Dark money targets Hispanics in Silver State

The law makes shining a light difficult, but reporters can do more than they have so far

NEVADA — Here in swing state Nevada—the southern reaches of which are less than a five-hour drive from Mexico—Latinos make up more than 25 percent of the population and 15 percent of registered voters. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney view the state as a “must win.”

Enter, last week, a brand new voter outreach initiative called Nevada Hispanics, with plans to spend up to $1 million here encouraging the state’s largest minority group—through town hall events and church visits and, perhaps, some TV ads—to vote conservative this fall.

So, who are these well-funded folks? And, from where do their funds come?

The answers, unfortunately, aren’t altogether clear (more on that coming). And reporters here added to the murk as much as they clarified.

As the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Washington correspondent, Steve Tetreault, pointed out in a piece last week previewing the group’s launch, it is a Washington, DC-based group, American Principles in Action, that has “jump[ed] into Nevada” to power this “self-described grassroots effort” dubbed Nevada Hispanics.

Reported Tetreault:

American Principles in Action was established in 2009 to promote conservative social goals. In 2010 it backed Republican Carly Fiorina for U.S. Senate in California and claimed it helped boost her support among Latinos even though she lost to incumbent U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The organization is a political nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors, which has raised eyebrows with one ethics watchdog group. In a 2010 report, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics called American Principles in Action “a shadowy group aiming to influence Latino voters.”

“The money and muscle behind the Latino push seems to involve few Latinos,” the report said. “Instead it came from a network of conservatives with a track record of creating sophisticated grass-root campaigns behind social initiatives.”

So, American Principles in Action is a 501(c)(4) or what Stephen Colbert would call a “spooky PAC.” Such groups, as Tetreault noted, don’t have to disclose their donors to the public (just to the IRS), so—without a friendly IRS source or this dark money group suddenly volunteering its donor list—reporters can not tell readers whose money is at work here. “Our donors prefer not to be revealed,” is how Alfonso Aguilar, “a former Bush administration official involved in what will be called Nevada Hispanics,” puts it in Tetreault’s piece.

If reporters can’t tell folks who is funding these efforts, they can explain to readers why that is and how this group fits into this election cycle’s outside spending landscape. Tetreault did better than other Vegas-area news outlets on this front—although he waited until the end of his piece to get to this. (A link to opensecrets.org’s admittedly limited data on American Principles in Action or to other online campaign finance resources CJR reviewed here might have further enhanced Tetrault’s piece.)

Another key question: what message(s) will these unknown donors be funding? Per Tetreault (and the group’s own press release), “American Principles in Action will campaign on ‘limited government,’ and it is planning attacks on the Obama administration’s record-high deportations of illegal immigrants.” Here, Tetreault should have provided readers with more about the administration’s deportation levels—readily available numbers and context.

Which brings us to the headline from Sin City’s other daily, the Las Vegas Sun, on its report about Nevada Hispanics’ launch: “Hispanic coalition: Obama ‘most anti-immigrant president’ in U.S. history.” Attention-grabbing and, no doubt, American Principles in Action-pleasing.

Here, in the article’s fourth paragraph, is how Sun reporter Tovin Lapan answered the “who are these folks” question (see if you can follow along):

Nevada Hispanics is an initiative of American Principles in Action, an affiliate of American Principles Project, a conservative organization founded by Princeton University professor Robert George. Aguilar’s Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles also is affiliated with American Principles Project.

And more, three paragraphs later:

The campaign is also affiliated with conservative groups Americans for Prosperity; the Libre Initiative, which focuses on economic policy; and the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization founded in 1942 that has progressively moved toward more conservative position.

At this point, baffled readers (at least this one) could use some kind of flow chart. (Maybe a New York Times-style infographic? At least a link to, say, opensecrets.org’s data on some of these groups.) Not to mention some mention of the money behind this inter-connected, multi-affiliated initiative and how we will likely never know its sources.

The Sun let Aguilar’s “anti-immigrant” line—that eye-grabbing one from the headline—stand alone, without context or question, again in the third paragraph. Ten paragraphs later, readers are told that Aguilar “criticized the Obama administration’s relatively high rate of deportations.” Like the Review-Journal, the Sun didn’t provide readers with enough context for these claims. (What’s true? What else should we know?)

So, Nevada Hispanics wants to convince Nevada’s Hispanics not to vote for Obama, in part because of his administration’s high deportation rate. This begs (or should) the question: what is the immigration agenda of the major alternative to Obama? Instead of summarizing Romney’s immigration plans for readers, the Sun inexplicably delegated that task to one Edith Fernandez, “an Obama supporter who attended the [Nevada Hispanics] event” last week.

What say you, Edith?

”It’s an interesting message they are sending about victimization when we think about (GOP presidential hopeful Mitt) Romney, who wants to use what’s happening in Arizona as a model for immigration here, and that turns our people into criminals, separates their families and in essence creates a state of fear and panic where people are going to hide and retreat,” said Edith Fernandez, an Obama supporter who attended the event.

Fernandez said Nevada Hispanics’ statements on immigration do not align with Romney’s. Fernandez also balked at the idea posed by Aguilar that it was Obama and the Democrats who failed to pass immigration reform.

Still, the Sun did far better for its audience on this story than did KTNV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Vegas (where I worked from 2005-2006). KTNV’s segment was brief, unquestioning (a “response” from the Nevada Democratic Party doesn’t suffice), never mentions money, and must have delighted Nevada Hispanics—whoever they are.

On the national level, CBS News’s Brian Montopoli (a former CJR writer) offered readers this useful context in his solid report on the group and its immigration messaging:

The Obama administration’s deportation policy has prompted anger from other Latino leaders, and a Pew Hispanic Center poll released in December found that Latinos disapprove of the Obama administration’s deportation policy by a two-to-one margin. The poll also found that just 25 percent of native-born Latinos knew deportations were higher under Mr. Obama than under his predecessor—something Aguilar says his effort is designed to change.

As Nevada Hispanics spends its $1 million of who-knows-whose money in this swing state—and as other dark money groups with other agendas arrive here—there will be opportunities for the Nevada press to do better. On June 13, for one, Nevada Hispanics is bringing former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer to Nevada to champion its cause.

Can Nevada Hispanics actually sway a chunk of the state’s sizeable Latino electorate? That, as the Nevada political reporter and pundit Jon Ralston recently wrote, “will depend on money, execution and the all-powerful media…”

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.