Transparency for Thee, None for Me

Dark Money Liberal Groups ProgressNow and CMD Attack Conservative Org Over Transparency


A state affiliate of a network of liberal groups that does not disclose its donors attacked a network of state-based conservative groups on Wednesday for an alleged lack of transparency.

The attacks followed the release of a series of reports on the State Policy Network (SPN), a group of state-based free market think tanks. Liberal groups ProgressNow and the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) produced the reports.

Representatives from ProgressNow and CMD criticized SPN in a Wednesday conference call on the report for failing to publicly disclose donors and allegedly working solely to advance the financial interests of those donors.

Brian Rothenberg, executive director of national ProgressNow network affiliate Progress Ohio and author of one of the reports, admitted on the call that his group does not disclose its donors “because we’ve had requests with some of the grants we get to not do that.”

That explanation was similar to a statement from SPN president Tracie Sharp, who dismissed attacks on its disclosure policy.

“Like almost every non-profit in the country, including the Red Cross and the Tides Foundation, we respect the privacy of our donors,” Sharp said in a Wednesday statement on the ProgressNow/CMD report.

Rothenberg said Progress Ohio, a 501(c)(4) activist group, should not be held to the same standard of disclosure as SPN’s state affiliates because “we don’t do direct lobbying.”

He and others on the call alleged that SPN groups have illegally engaged in direct lobbying without adequately disclosing that activity. Sharp called those accusations “completely baseless.”

Lisa Graves, CMD’s executive director, said any comparison between the SPN network and similar left-wing groups is a “false equivalency” because conservative groups, unlike their liberal counterparts, are working to advance not just an ideological agenda but the financial interests of their donors.

Progress Ohio is funded in large part by the state’s labor unions, and frequently promotes policies that would benefit those groups.

The group has vehemently opposed proposals in the state legislature to end forced unions dues collection by making Ohio a “right-to-work” state.

ProgressOhio also pushed the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009, which would have eliminated secret ballot protections in elections for union representation through a “card check” scheme.

The group took positions on both issues that benefitted labor unions as unions were giving it large contributions: according to U.S. Department of Labor records, unions gave ProgressOhio more than $250,000 from 2008 through 2012.

It has also received funds from other liberal groups and foundations that get significant funding from labor unions.

The national ProgressNow organization has also pushed policies that stood to enrich some of its major corporate donors.

Pat Stryker, the liberal heiress to a Colorado medical device fortune, provided large amounts of funding for the group and benefitted from policies it supported.

Her Bohemian Foundation gave ProgressNow $580,000 between 2006 and 2010. In 2010, the group hailed the success of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus, months before the Energy Department gave nearly $400 million to Abound Solar, in which Stryker was heavily invested.

Abound is now bankrupt.

Graves, Rothenberg, and their respective organizations insist that SPN’s member groups are coordinating at a national level to advance conservative policy goals. But Rothenberg suggested on Wednesday’s call that he simply inferred coordination from the similarities in the groups’ work.

“They have curiously common agendas and common messages in many cases,” Rothenberg said. Graves noted that they often “echo each other and reinforce each other and push a common agenda.”

SPN is quite open about that common agenda. Each affiliate, Sharp said, “rallies around a common belief: the power of free markets and free people to create a healthy, prosperous society.”

Graves warned that SPN is actually a network of “special interests funded by some of the richest people in the country.”

Rockefeller, Ford, Turner, Soros, and other names frequently associated with opulence adorn CMD’s donor list.

Lachlan Markay   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Lachlan Markay is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He comes to the Beacon from the Heritage Foundation, where he was the conservative think tank's first investigative reporter. He was also a contributing editor for His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and the Washington Examiner. He graduated from Hamilton College in 2009, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @lachlan. His email address is