Journalism in the Public Interest

VIDEO: Kim Barker Discusses Dark Money Groups on Face the Nation

On Sunday, ProPublica's Kim Barker was on CBS Face the Nation to discuss her new investigation on 501(c)(4)s and the tactics they use to underreport their political activities to the IRS. Already these nonprofit groups have spent more than $71 million on TV advertisements under the guise of "education" or "issue advocacy," trumping all super PACs combined.

"Nobody's actually talking about it," Barker said on the program. "It's just sort of accepted that this is the way it is. You have all of this anonymous money coming in and there's nothing we can do about it...We've seen it since 2010, we're going to see it to a much greater extent in 2012."

Barker was also on Democracy Now! and WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show this morning to talk about dark money groups and how they exploit their tax-exempt status to keep the identity of their donors hidden. You can read her article, How Nonprofits Spend Millions on Elections and Call it Public Welfare, and all of ProPublica's reporting on Campaign 2012 on our series page.

These tactics appear from the outset to be the same subversive ways and means in which church’s evade the IRS when preaching politics and socio politics from the pulpit.

R. Nash, you’re not entirely wrong, because my neighborhood growing up had a bunch of what we called “weed churches” (houses that, overnight, had a wooden cross in the window and, poof, instant church), which I’m sure were totally legitimate temples of worship and not some dude who didn’t want to pay taxes.  But keep in mind that it works both ways.  There have been a few stories, over the years, of churches that refused to register with the government, feeling that “separation of Church and State” should include not filing paperwork that links them.  They also paid taxes.  While you’d think this would make the IRS happy, they’ve all been harassed until they filed as a church.

The government would rather have a religious organization listed on file than get money.

What the tactics remind me of, by contrast, are organizations like China’s so-called “50 Cent Party,” people who are secretly paid by the government to wander Internet forums to talk up public policy and drown out dissenters.

Consider that you could funnel money to a “social welfare” group (perhaps one you just started) to hide your identity, have them donate to a second “social welfare” group to hide its origin, and pass it through a SuperPAC, which removes any spending limits.  Why might you go to that trouble?  The only rational reason is to hide who’s supporting the message.

And at that point, the message is surely pure propaganda, very probably untrue, and what I’d call directly un-American.  Voting anybody into office supported by such an organization is clearly controlled by a secretive interest, and therefore is highly unlikely to have any interest in our future except to the extent that it profits those stealthy donors.

Should be a simple rule:  If a SuperPAC is backing a candidate, vote for someone else.  The easiest way to fight the Citizens United decision is to make it futile.

So what of the church’s, that on a regular basis, are breaking the 3 federal statutes covering the use of the pulpit for political gain? The IRS has consistently for at least 50 years avoided enforcing these laws.
As for PACS/super PAC’S, I wholeheartedly agree to stay away from that candidate, but alas that leaves all of us with no candidate for the foreseeable future. The Citizens United ruling will go down as the last nail in the coffin of our great republic. So long American exceptionalism.

There are surely candidates.  There are third parties.  There are write-in ballots.  Your candidate won’t win, of course, but the day the winner only gets a quarter of the popular vote, they’ll change tactics.

The goal isn’t merely to win the game, after all, but to make the win look legitimate.  Hence running two nearly-identical candidates with awful track records, every four years, and turning voting into a foorball pool, where non-sports-fans like myself choose based on color, rather than research.  A single primary candidate is suspect.  A landslide victory is suspect.  A nail-biting race to the finish that’s decided only after several recounts, that’s a story where people feel their voices were heard.

The nail-biting race is so believable, in fact, that everybody followed the bouncing ball, in 2000, looking at Florida and the Supreme Court, without ever asking if there was fraud anywhere else in the system or if any Democrats were complicit.  I’m not saying that it happened, but it’s only sensible to ask questions like that, once anybody has suggested fraud or abuse.  If it existed at all, why would it have been localized…?

Contact ProPublica

155 Avenue of the Americas
13th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10013


Complete Contact Information »

Get Our Data and Reporting Tools

We frequently publish data, and reporting tools like tipsheets and guides.

Sign Up

Our Hottest Stories