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October 17, 2014

Shape-Shifting Nonprofit Is Major Funder of a Run-and-Gun Super PAC

By Matt Corley

Dark MoneyA week before Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary last May, an ad popped up on Nebraskans’ mobile phones accusing the eventual winner, former Bush administration official Ben Sasse, of profiting “on the Obamacare speaking circuit.” “Ben Sasse made $114,000 in ten speeches to pro-Obamacare health associations” the 15-second ad declared. The Hometown Freedom Action Network (HFAN), an Ohio-based super PAC, paid for the ads. The group was founded in 2012, but didn’t report raising or spending any money until the Sasse ads hit phone screens in 2014.

HFAN is required to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), but searching the reports for the money behind the ad leads to a dead end. The only contributor HFAN reported in the period when the ad ran is an Ohio nonprofit called A Public Voice, Inc. (APV), which is not required to disclose its donors. APV has almost no public presence and, until recently, it operated under a different name.

Groups such as APV are shape-shifters — organizations that pop up to influence elections or ballot initiatives and then change their names and focus, making it even harder to track the money behind them.

What Is A Public Voice, Inc.?

The shreds of information available about APV show it is closely linked to other nonprofit groups and super PACs that also spend money on elections while concealing their donors. APV was originally called Protect Your Vote, Ohio, Inc. (PYVO), and was founded in 2012 to oppose a ballot initiative that would have created an independent citizens’ board to oversee Ohio’s congressional redistricting. PYVO spent more than $8 million against the plan, and the ballot initiative failed. Almost half of its budget was provided by the Partnership for Ohio’s Future, a group affiliated with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, according to reports filed with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.

In April 2013, PYVO filed paperwork with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office to change its name to APV. The reasons for the name change are unclear, and its recent spate of political activity isn’t shedding much light on the group’s purpose. APV doesn’t even have a website. The closest thing was a bare-bones page for the “Arkansas State Voter Program,” which described itself as a project of APV. The website no longer works. The voter program apparently consisted of unsolicited letters sent to Arkansas voters in May 2014 with a “voter report card” naming the recipients’ neighbors and listing whether they had voted in the past three elections. Arkansas voters were spooked and Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin issued a statement saying that they had not been authorized by his office.

In addition to the Arkansas venture, APV has continued playing in local Ohio politics.  In 2013, APV was one of several non-disclosing groups giving money to Cincinnati for Pension Reform (CPR), a group that sought to overhaul Cincinnati’s pension system. According to local campaign finance records obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, nearly every penny of the $342,185 CPR raised for its 2013 effort came from five groups that do not disclose their donors: APV, the Liberty Initiative Fund, the Jobs and Progress Fund (JAPF), Ohio Rising, and Ohio 2.0.  APV gave $112,000 to the effort. CPR was able to get the proposed pension changes on the ballot last November, but voters rejected it.

APV has ventured farther afield over the past six weeks. APV money paid for HFAN’s television ads supporting Adam Kwasman’s failed primary bid in Arizona’s 1st district last month. In September, HFAN reported spending $80,000 on mobile advertising in support of Donald Ytterberg in Colorado’s 7th district and $346,000 on mobile ads in October opposing Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) reelection. APV, along with two other nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors, funded HFAN’s ads, giving the super PAC a combined $260,000 in August and September. In September, APV also contributed $110,000 to the Concrete and Portland Cement Action Network (CAPCAN), a super PAC focusing on local Ohio politics.

A Network of Shape-Shifters

APV is tied to several other political nonprofits, including some of the groups connected to the Cincinnati pension effort. The groups are linked through a small group of activists and lawyers in Ohio, and changing names and purposes appears to be a routine tactic. At the center of the network is attorney David R. Langdon and his firm, Langdon Law, which claims to “have expertise regarding the ability of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations to engage in permitted election activities, and in issues relating to affiliations among tax-exempt entities, such as groups that utilize charitable, social welfare, and 527 organizations.”

Mr. Langdon was PYVO’s treasurer and Langdon Law attorney Joshua B. Bolinger was the group’s incorporator. Mr. Langdon is also the treasurer for HFAN, the super PAC, as well as JAPF, one of the groups behind the Cincinnati pension push. He is also the custodian of records for CAPCAN, the other super PAC supported by APV. In addition, Mr. Langdon is the treasurer of the Citizens for a Working America PAC, a super PAC that spent heavily in Georgia’s recent Senate primary, and the group’s nonprofit arm, Citizens for a Working America (CWA), has paid Langdon Law $564,996 for “attorney services.” The nonprofit CWA reported giving APV a $378,325 grant between October 1, 2012 and September 30, 2013, making it the only known source of APV’s money since the group’s name change.

Langdon Law attorneys incorporated two of the other groups that gave CPR money: Mr. Langdon was the incorporator for Ohio 2.0 and Mr. Bolinger was the incorporator for Ohio Rising. Not surprisingly, Mr. Langdon was also listed as the incorporator for CPR itself. Ohio Rising was founded by Ohio political activist Chris Littleton, who is also on the board of Ohio 2.0 and served as the campaign manager for CPR. On its 2013 tax filing, the dark money group Americans for Limited Government (ALG) reported making small grants to both Ohio Rising and Ohio 2.0. ALG listed the two groups as sharing an address in West Chester, Ohio, which also happens to be the address of Langdon Law.

Like APV, several of these groups are shape-shifters who have changed their names and purposes. JAPF, for instance, started under a different name: Ohio First for a Better Government. That group was also incorporated by Mr. Langdon. Ohio Rising was first named Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom and campaigned in 2011 to amend Ohio’s constitution to prohibit laws or rules that would use the threat of fines to “compel” individuals to get health insurance.  Effective August 12, 2012, according to paperwork filed with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, OHF became Ohio Rising. The newly christened group quickly made a splash by circulating an anti-tax pledge in opposition to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s proposed tax increase on oil and gas drillers. In 2013, Ohio Rising produced a series of ads calling on Ohio state representatives to oppose expanding Medicaid in the state. 

At the close of 2013, Mr. Langdon filed the paperwork to create a new nonprofit with a name reminiscent of APV’s: A Quiet Voice, Inc. If it follows the pattern of some of Mr. Langdon’s other groups, the organization’s name could appear soon on attack ads. That is, of course, if the name doesn’t change in the meantime.  

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