Dark money non-profits have devised a handful of tactics for spending millions to influence elections while keeping their tax-exempt status safe, allowing them to keep their donors secret. These groups often run sham “issue” ads or give money to like-minded groups and pretend it wasn’t used for politics. Others just lie on their tax returns about what they spent their money on.
The Government Integrity Fund (GIF) used all three tactics in 2014, prompting the complaint CREW filed against the group with the IRS today. The group, which has pushed the limits of laws governing disclosure and political activity by tax-exempt organizations since its inception during the 2012 election cycle, also filed its inaccurate tax returns 14 months after it was legally required to do so without explaining the illegal delay.
GIF’s misrepresentations allowed the group to claim it spent less than 50 percent of its budget on politics. Tax-exempt social welfare groups like GIF, which are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, are allowed to spend money on electoral politics as long as it is not their primary activity. In fact, influencing elections appears to be GIF’s major, if not only, purpose.
On its tax return, known as a Form 990, GIF reported spending $4.477 million overall in 2014, including an acknowledged $1.133 million on political activity, meaning politics was 25 percent of the group’s activity by its own account. But GIF’s actual political spending number is much higher.
The only political spending the group admitted to was giving to three super PACs: $165,000 to the Hometown Freedom Action Network, $85,000 to the Concrete and Portland Cement Action Network, and $883,208 to its sister group, the Government Integrity Fund Action Network (GIFAN). This admission, though, low-balls GIF’s spending: Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show GIF actually contributed $1.055 million to GIFAN in 2014.
That’s not all that is missing. FEC records also show GIF gave $444,006.26 to another super PAC, Citizens for a Working America PAC, including a $34,006.26 in-kind contribution for “direct mail” targeting then-Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) in the Republican Senate primary runoff. GIF did disclose giving $410,000 to Citizens for a Working America elsewhere on its tax return, but claimed the money went to a non-profit by that name, not the super PAC. As a result, it wasn’t included in GIF’s tally of political spending.
The confusion is hard to understand. GIF’s chairman, Joel Riter, is also the president of the Citizens for a Working America non-profit.
Add the missing contributions to GIFAN and Citizens for a Working America PAC and GIF’s political spending for 2014 increases to $1.749 million, or 39 percent of total spending. Getting closer to primary activity territory.
There’s more. On the part of its tax form that lists grants, GIF also disclosed giving $775,000 to a non-profit called the Mid America Fund. Most of this money, however, was almost certainly used to pay for political ads in Rhode Island, as demonstrated by the timing of those contributions. According to an expenditures report filed in the Ocean State, on October 20, 2014, GIF gave the Mid America Fund $435,000 while the Republican Governors Association, an explicitly political organization, gave the Mid America Fund $125,000. On October 21, 2014, the Mid America Fund paid $557,420 for expenditures aimed at defeating now-Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI). Then, on October 31, 2014, GIF gave the Mid America Fund $300,000 and that same day the Mid America Fund paid $302,500 for expenditures targeting Raimondo for defeat.
In fact, the Mid America Fund admitted that the Rhode Island expenditures were political on its own 2014 tax return. Clearly, GIF should do the same. If the $735,000 the Mid America Fund disclosed receiving from GIF is added to GIF’s political spending, the total increases to $2.484 million, or 55 percent of GIF’s 2014 expenditures. In other words, influencing elections was GIF’s major purpose in 2014.
The true number may still be even higher. GIF also disclosed $1.399 million in “issue communications,” which may have actually been sham issue ads that aim to influence elections but avoid using express advocacy language. As CREW has previously noted, the IRS considers several key factors when it determines whether particular communications constitute political campaign intervention, not just whether express advocacy language is used.
Remember GIF’s funding of its sister super PAC, GIFAN? That money paid for $1,047,880 in “broadcast/cable and digital advertising” independent expenditures supporting then-Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) in his Senate bid. The ad buyer was Target Enterprises, which not-so-coincidentally is also listed on GIF’s 990 as its top independent contractor. The amount GIF paid for “consulting”: $1,399,123. Yes, that is the same amount GIF said it spent on “issue communications.”
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, GIF also spent money on ads in Arkansas’ Senate race. In fact, GIF and GIFAN may have even run nearly identical ads in the state, but with different endings, turning GIFAN’s express advocacy ad into GIF’s “issue” ad. A GIFAN ad on YouTube praises Sen. Cotton’s military service, concluding with “Tom Cotton. For Arkansas.” A GIF ad on YouTube is almost word-for-word, image-for-image the same as the GIFAN ad, but instead, finishes with, “call Tom Cotton, tell him to keep fighting Obamacare and bailouts, and for our Arkansas values.”
GIF, which did not report any expenditures to the FEC, also used Target Enterprise to purchase ads in Arkansas in July 2014, according to Federal Communications Commission records. That month, Politico reported that GIF planned “to launch a fresh $1.1 million ad buy over the next six weeks” that would boost then-Rep. Cotton.
If the IRS were to consider the pro-Cotton ads reported by Politico as political intervention, that would mean GIF’s total political spending would be $3.584 million, or 80 percent of its total spending. If all of the money GIF reported spending on “issue communications” was used for the pro-Cotton ads, the total would rise to $3.883 million, or nearly 87 percent of its total spending.
The harsh reality of the hard numbers of GIF’s 2014 political spending may explain why GIF only filed its 2014 tax return in July, roughly 14 months after it was required to do so. Even then, the group only appears to have been prompted to do so when OpenSecrets started asking to see the return.
This isn’t the first time GIF has been tardy in filing its tax returns. In January 2014, when the group filed its 2012 tax return eight months late, GIF included a letter from then-president Thomas Norris apologizing for the delay and listing several issues that supposedly caused it. The letter concluded by saying, “[t]here should not be any issued (sic) with filing the returns timely in the future.”
This year, however, GIF didn’t provide the IRS with any explanation about why it was so late in filing. Perhaps it was too busy concocting false representations to hide the fact that the group is actually a political committee.