Blog — Campaign Finance Reform

November 20, 2013

On the Trail of Dark Money

By CREW Staff

IRS form moneyWhat do American Commitment and Patriot Majority USA have in common?  They are both “dark money” groups that enjoy tax-exempt status and spend lots of money on political activity.  It also can be pretty hard to find out more about them.

CREW, a government watchdog, is committed to advancing transparency.  Dark money nonprofits aren’t required to disclose their donors, but they do have to file annual tax returns providing a window into their revenue and spending.  By law, the forms are supposed to be available to anyone who goes to the group’s office during business hours and requests them, which CREW does regularly.  Some of these groups, however, don’t make it as easy as it sounds.

A few groups are staffed by professionals who turn over documents with a minimum of fuss.  Crossroads GPS, one of the biggest, even offered coffee and donuts.  Some groups comply, but throw in snide comments.  Others refuse to turn over filings that are supposed to be public until they hear from CREW’s lawyers, or like Freedom Partners, we file a complaint.  More than once, we’ve gone to addresses that turn out to be post office boxes or UPS stores, or found a group has moved without leaving a forwarding address.

Take Patriot Majority USA, which spent more than $7 million on political activity during the 2012 elections.  The group has a flashy website and more than 135,000 Facebook “Likes,” but its offices are hard to find.  Patriot Majority USA is no longer at the address listed on last year’s tax filing, according to the building’s management.  It lists a post office box on its website, and only one email address.  When we called the number provided on last year’s 990 form there was no voicemail and no indication calls were being forwarded.  Another group, American Commitment, wasn’t at the address listed on its prior tax return.  When we called, we were told the group had moved, but the person on the phone wouldn’t give us the new address.

UPDATE: American Commitment referred CREW to its attorney, who provided the group's tax return. It is available here.

Keep in mind these are nonprofit groups spending millions of dollars to influence elections, all the while claiming political activity isn’t their primary purpose.  Instead, they qualify for tax-exempt status by promising to promote social welfare.  So why are they so reluctant to let us take a look at the already minimal information about their activities they are required to make public?  Dark money may be opaque, but one thing is clear: finding out more about the groups trying to influence citizens’ votes shouldn’t be this hard.   

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