Democracy Alliance Pledges to Keep Donors Secret

Shadowy donor club to shield donor names, internal deliberations from public view

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the site of the Democracy Alliance donor conference in November / Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group
December 4, 2014

A shadowy club of ultra-rich liberal donors assured contributors at a recent closed-door meeting that it will not disclose their involvement if they wish it to remain secret.

The Democracy Alliance says opacity in political funding and the influence of "big money" is corrosive to the democratic process, but the group currently discloses nothing about the hundreds of millions of dollars it steers to leading liberal and Democratic organizations.

It is now discussing steps to increase transparency of its operations, according to internal documents from the organization’s November conference obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. However, it insists it will keep key information from public view.

The Alliance is assuring donors that DA will not reveal their work in steering massive sums to major political groups.

"The Democracy Alliance has assured its Partners from the beginning that their participation will not be made public by us, and our legal structure was designed, among other reasons, to protect that promise," the group said in briefing materials for its "Partner Forum."

"A number of partners, for various reasons … will wish to remain unidentified, and the DA will continue to respect these wishes," it assured donors.

The Alliance’s partners pledge to contribute at least $200,000 to any of the 172 groups that it strategically vets and recommends for financial support. It steered nearly $70 million to 153 of those groups last year.

Discussions about DA’s notorious opacity took place at its biannual donor conference, held last month at the ritzy Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C.

Like past DA donor meetings, it was secretive about the goings-on at November’s meeting. A Mandarin Oriental memo advised hotel staff that the Alliance "is extremely confidential and private."

DA hired its own security to patrol the premises, according to the memo, and rented office space from the hotel that "should be kept locked for the duration of their program."

"Participation guidelines" included in the conference agenda urged participants to keep the proceedings secret and to avoid talking with reporters.

"Democracy Alliance conference participants have an expectation that their conference experience and their identity shall remain confidential," it advised attendees.

It asked attendees to refrain from posting identifying information about other participants on social media, and to contact DA vice president Ryan Rodriguez if asked about the conference by a reporter.

Despite taking extensive steps to avoid public scrutiny of its activities, DA discussed potential steps for making its operations slightly more transparent.

Partners that wish to be publicly identified may say so, according to the partner forum agenda. It may also reveal more information about the groups that it recommends for support.

However, internal deliberations about that support will remain hidden from public view, the group said.

"The press has always taken a strong interest in the activities of the Democracy Alliance, and understandably so," DA said.

"This has led to regular requests by the press to speak (on the record or on background) about our work, requests to attend our conferences, and at times, attempts to attend conferences to which they have been denied access and the unauthorized disclosure of some documents, such as Board materials or investment recommendations prepared for Partners."

The latter seems to refer to reports from the Washington Free Beacon and others that published internal Alliance documents revealing, for the first time, the full portfolio of DA-backed groups, and the names of a number of new partners.

Since those publications, the Alliance has signaled that it will be more forthcoming with information that it did not, prior to their publication, intend to disclose and that only became public through the type of "unauthorized disclosure" that it bemoans.

Despite those indications, DA assured partners that materials detailing its strategies for endorsing and steering funds to major political groups will remain secret.

"While we recognize the value of as much openness which strategies and organizations we endorse, we believe that it is appropriate for governance and strategic deliberations, along with the printed materials that support them, to be treated as confidential."

Even as it shields that information from public view, the Alliance funds numerous groups that rail on political opacity and the influence of "dark money" on the American political process.

The Alliance says it supports campaign finance reform measures, though it admits that it does so not out of a concern about political corruption, but as a means of reducing the influence of political actors that oppose its electoral and legislative goals.