LA Times tries to unmask dark money donors

But story's greatest virtue may be its look at where campaign cash goes

Earlier this week, Matea Gold and Joseph Tanfani of the Los Angeles Times teamed up for a sharp article about the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), an opaque nonprofit institution that helped steer about $55 million in conservative cash to other opaque institutions during the 2010 election cycle. It’s recommended reading for anyone following the money-in-politics story.

The news up high in the article is that, while the center’s donors are not disclosed, the group has ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, who are among the country’s biggest donors to conservative causes. The circumstantial evidence marshaled by the LAT is juxtaposed against a series of no-comments, did-not-responds, and comical professions of ignorance as Gold and Tanfani try to pin down the source of the center’s funding. (One of the latter: a Phoenix doctor who once sat on the center’s board—and who headed an advocacy organization that got almost all its funding from the center—“said he couldn’t remember who asked him to join.”)

But the story’s greatest value—and the most useful takeaway for journalists—may be its look not at where the center’s dark money comes from, but where it goes. The article helpfully explains that the center acted as a sort of clearinghouse for right-wing money. As a tax law professor consulted by the LAT put it: “Rather than have to make the decision yourself, you would entrust them to spread it around.”

And where did the CPPR decide to spread it around? The LAT provides a helpful spreadsheet with all the details, but here are the highlights:

While never surfacing publicly, the center sent more than $10 million in its first year to groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which took a lead in protesting [health-care reform].

…The center’s influence extended beyond the healthcare debate, tax filings show. Money also went to antiabortion groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List and to Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist. In Florida, the center backed Protect Your Vote, a Republican effort to defeat two redistricting measures.

The largest share of the center’s money went to American Future Fund, a Des Moines-based group started by onetime GOP congressional aide Nick Ryan. The fund, which ran campaigns against two dozen Democrats in the 2010 election cycle, spent $23 million that period, tax filings show, with nearly $13 million coming from the center.

The emphasis on congressional races and state ballot measures is a canny use of political cash. As CJR has previously noted, because voters have access to large amounts of information about the presidential candidates, it’s hard for any particular attack to stand out. House races and redistricting measures occur in lower-information environments, which makes it easier for well-funded outlets to take control of the message war. The upshot: an important way for journalists to check the influence of concentrations of money in campaigns is simply to give voters information about the candidates. (In other words: don’t let this happen.)

And the LAT article provides some evidence that the funds funneled through CPPR were effective, at least to a point. The top target of American Future Fund was an Iowa Democrat, Rep. Bruce Braley, who romped to a 29-point win in 2008. After a $2 million push by AFF—including “an ad falsely claiming that Braley supported building a mosque at the former World Trade Center site in New York”—Braley eked out a two-point victory in 2010. The political environment shifted dramatically between the two cycles, of course, and some of Braley’s constituents were probably unhappy with the direction of the Democratic-led Congress in those two years, but a swing that large suggests AFF’s investments had some impact.

At the same time, lurking at the bottom of the LAT piece is a passage that reinforces a point Walter Shapiro recently made here at CJR: the “campaign-industrial complex” often serves the interests of consultants at least as much as donors. Consider:

The center appears closely linked with DCI Group, a Washington-based consulting firm that specializes in under-the-radar corporate campaigns.

At least five groups that received large grants from the center paid more than $9 million in services to DCI Group or Direct Response, a mail and phone-bank company…

For example, the center gave more than $2 million to the similarly named Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, a Virginia-based nonprofit formed in spring 2009, five weeks after the center. The two organizations share the same Phoenix accountant and records custodian—both former DCI employees, according to their online resumes.

The coalition staged rallies in 2009 to lobby against the so-called public option, a government medical insurance proposal eventually dropped by the Obama administration. The center provided 80% of the coalition’s budget; nearly all went to DCI and Direct Response for consulting and voter contact.

No one will be shedding any tears for the anonymous billionaires whose donations helped pay for some consultant’s vacation home. And it’s possible that the good folks at DCI really were best-equipped to advance the agenda of the center’s donors. But this is a nice catch by Gold and Tanfani, and a reminder that there are plenty of mercenary motives—which may not be consistent with political effectiveness—in these circles.

It adds up to some nice work by the LAT. And one final note: the article prominently mentions, and links to, items by the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics and the investigative blog Republic Report where important parts of the story were first reported. While newspaper blogs have long been pretty good about incorporating outbound links, many papers have been frustratingly slow to embed links in the online versions of print articles. It’s good to see that changing.

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