Left-wing groups backed by a secretive liberal donor network have poured large sums into a key U.S. Senate race even as the Democrat in that race decries the corrosive influence of "dark money" in American politics.
More than half a dozen organizations supported by the Democracy Alliance—some of which share staff and use the same mailing addresses—have quietly funneled money from undisclosed sources into the U.S. Senate race in Colorado, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Rep. Cory Gardner.
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Outside groups have spent nearly $45 million on the race, more than four times as much as the candidates themselves, according to the Sunlight Foundation. About $25.6 million has backed Udall or attacked Gardner, while about $19.2 million has supported the challenger or attacked the incumbent.
Udall, a cosponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment this year designed to impose strict new regulations on political spending, is a frequent critic of "the Koch Brothers" and other conservative political donors. He has made campaign finance reform and the evils of money in politics central messages of his reelection effort.
"Coloradans deserve to know who is behind the relentless attack ads they see on TV and hear on the radio in the seemingly year-round election season," he said in a statement on the proposed constitutional amendment. "Restoring transparency to our elections and reining in shadowy political groups is essential to protecting our democracy."
However, several groups supporting his reelection effort have structured their organizations to effectively mask the identities of individual donors. These "dark money" groups pass on undisclosed contributions to groups that canspend unlimited sums supporting federal candidates.
Among Udall’s backers is a Super PAC called Fair Share Action. It has spent more than $1.5 million on advertising, door-to-door canvassing, and accompanying literature.
The group’s expenditures on canvassing services have largely gone to a Colorado-based firm called Work for Progress, an employee of which is facing charges of voter registration fraud.
Fair Share Action is an affiliate of two other organizations: the 501(c)(4) Fair Share Alliance, and the 501(c)(3) Fair Share Alliance Education Fund. The Alliance, known until 2012 as Progressive Future, is among 180 liberal organizations supported by the Democracy Alliance.
Like its Super PAC affiliate, the Fair Share Alliance has worked extensively with Work for Progress, paying the firm $1.37 million between July 2012 and June 2013, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service filing.
Fair Share Action has received funds from just four groups during the 2014 cycle: $500,000 from its Fair Share Alliance affiliate; $500,000 from the political arm of the National Education Association teachers union, whose executive director chairs DA’s board; $125,000 from the America Votes Action Fund, a member of DA’s core "aligned network" portfolio; and $10,000 from the DA-supported House Majority PAC.
It received additional DA support in 2012, when millionaire tech tycoon and Democracy Alliance co-founder Tim Gill gave the group $250,000. His Gill Action Fund chipped in another $218,000.
Fair Share Action also disclosed $1.8 million in contributions that year from the Environment America Action Fund and $551,000 from an affiliated group, Environment America. Like the Fair Share Alliance, Environment America’s (c)(4) arm is part of the Democracy Alliance’s "progressive infrastructure map."
The Action Fund has not spent directly on federal elections during the 2014 cycle. However, it has given millions of dollars in recent years to a number of DA-aligned groups working to elect Democrats, including Udall, to the U.S. Senate.
Environment America gave the Fair Share Alliance $1.1 million between July 2012 and June 2013, in addition to its six-figure contribution to Fair Share Action.
The Fair Share and Environment America groups have ties to another Democracy Alliance-backed network: state-based Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) and an affiliated 501(c)(4) called the Fund for Public Interest Research.
Douglas Phelps serves as president and chairman of U.S. PIRG, a DA progressive infrastructure map member. His PIRG bio says he chairs the advisory board of the Fund for the Public Interest, though prior IRS filings from that group have listed him as its executive director.
Phelps also chairs Environment America, whose executive director, Margie Alt, is a director at Fund for the Public Interest. According to her bio, Alt "spent 25 years building U.S. PIRG and the state PIRGs."
Environment America’s website lists two addresses: a headquarters at 294 Washington St. in Boston, and a "federal advocacy office" at 218 D St. SE in Washington, D.C. U.S. PIRG’s website provides identical addresses, even labeling the latter its own "federal advocacy office."
The Fund for the Public Interest lists the Boston address as its headquarters. Fair Share Alliance and its (c)(3) affiliate both say they are located at the same Washington, D.C. address as U.S. PIRG and Environment America.
Ties between the groups are also financial. The Fund for the Public Interest donated $1 million to Environment America between July 2012 and June 2013. Fair Share Alliance gave the Fund $329,857 in the same period.
The Fair Share/Environment America network’s ability to shield the donors supporting its political operations was apparent, ironically, during its efforts to support a toothless campaign finance reform effort in Colorado in 2012.
Fair Share Action received a combined $1.15 million from the network’s two dark money arms—Environment America and the Fair Share Alliance—in late October of that year, weeks before voters went to the polls.
The ballot committee eventually spent more than $600,000 in support of the measure, the bulk of which went to Work for Progress.
The measure passed overwhelmingly, but did not actually do anything to limit the type of spending brought to bear on its behalf.
As Colorado political reporter Ari Armstrong noted in the Denver Post, the measure was "peculiar in that it doesn't itself have force of law." Instead, it called on the state legislature to support a national constitutional amendment to limit political spending.