How Issue One identified donors to dark money groups
Unlike candidates, political parties, political action committees or super PACs, dark money groups are generally not required to publicly disclose their funders. To some donors, this is part of the appeal of giving to a dark money group. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has said that dark money groups must only reveal the identities of donors who give for the specific purpose of “furthering” a specific communication — something that, often by design, rarely happens.
Nevertheless, there are a number of other “backdoor” avenues that can be used to identify certain donors to these groups. Such methods typically don’t uncover information about who is funding a group in real time, but short of someone leaking donor lists, these techniques are the best ways to uncover, from obscure public records, information about who is bankrolling dark money groups.
Here are the main data sources and steps that the Issue One research team used to search for donors to the top 15 dark money groups, which frequently led Issue One to be able to identify donors — and transactions — that have never previously been associated with these dark money groups:
- FEC filings from the dark money group itself. While filings with the FEC from dark money groups typically only detail the amount of their expenditures, by law, these groups must tell the FEC if they receive any funds for the purpose of “furthering” that expenditure. The Issue One research team searched the filings associated with each of the 15 top dark money groups and then assessed the results, taking steps to avoid double-counting any transactions that had also been reported on any of the other filings we searched.
- FEC expenditure data. This method is useful for uncovering dark money donations from political committees, from candidates to leadership PACs to super PACs to traditional political action committees. If a group that reports its expenditures to the FEC gives money to a dark money group, then that transaction will show up in the FEC’s expenditure data. The Issue One research team searched for the full names of each of the 15 top dark money groups — as well as partial names and common abbreviations — and then assessed the results, removing any false positives and taking steps to avoid double-counting any transactions that had also been reported on any of the other filings we searched.
- Congressional LD-203 filings. These forms — filed with both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives — detail political contributions from registered lobbyists. Occasionally, lobbyists include contributions to dark money groups on these filings, in addition to their contributions to candidates, parties, presidential inaugural committees and the like. The Issue One research team searched for the full names of each of the 15 top dark money groups — as well as partial names and common abbreviations — and then assessed the results, removing any false positives and taking steps to avoid double-counting any transactions that had also been reported on any of the other filings we searched.
- Department of Labor LM-2 Filings. Labor unions must file extensive reports with the Department of Labor that detail their financial activities, including the expenditures they make. If a labor union contributes money to a dark money group, that transaction will show up in a search of the labor union’s LM-2 filings’ expenditure data. The Issue One research team searched for the full names of each of the 15 top dark money groups — as well as partial names and common abbreviations — and then assessed the results, removing any false positives and taking steps to avoid double-counting any transactions that had also been reported on any of the other filings we searched.
- IRS Form 990s. Nonprofit organizations — including 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations, 501(c)(5) labor unions and 501(c)(6) trade associations — must submit annual tax returns to the IRS known as Form 990s. These forms detail any grants they make to other nonprofits. A number of resources exist for searching for information found within IRS Form 990s, including, most notably, CitizenAudit.org.
- CitizenAudit.org makes it possible to search for a word or phrase across multiple IRS Form 990s, across multiple years, by using optical character recognition (OCR) technology and digital information released by the IRS. The Issue One research team performed extensive searches on CitizenAudit.org using the following search terms: 1) each organization’s full EIN number, with the dash; 2) each organization’s full EIN number, without the dash; 3) a partial EIN number of each organization, using only the numbers after the dash; 4) the full name of each organization; and 5) partial names and common abbreviations of each organization. The Issue One research team subsequently assessed the results, removing any false positives and taking steps to avoid double-counting any transactions that had also been reported on any of the other filings we searched.
- Issue One is not the first organization to realize that IRS Form 990s contain valuable information about contributions to political dark money groups. In 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics began profiling dark money groups and identifying the funds these organizations had received from other nonprofits. Details about these donors appear on two separate sections of the Center for Responsive Politics’ website. Likewise, in 2016, the Center for Public Integrity unveiled a tool for searching IRS Form 990s on its website called “Search the Nonprofit Network.” These three resources — which all link to primary source documents — were cross-referenced against the other information gathered by the Issue One research team to ensure no contributions were missed.
- Similarly, the Media Matters Action Network launched a website in 2009 called ConservativeTransparency.org with profiles of many conservative dark money groups. This resource, now operated by the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, was also cross-referenced by the Issue One research team. Any information found on ConservativeTransparency.org was then verified with a primary source document, or omitted if it could not be independently verified.
- Moreover, if a nonprofit was identified as giving to any of the 15 top dark money groups any time between 2010 and 2016, the Issue One research team then manually reviewed all years’ worth of IRS Form 990s for that group — from the most recent going back to 2010, or the fiscal year that covered January of 2010 (when the Citizens United ruling was issued by the Supreme Court). Copies of those IRS Form 990s could typically be found online by searching CitizenAudit.org, GuideStar.org, the Foundation Center’s website and ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. For the most recent IRS Form 990s, Issue One frequently requested copies of those documents directly from the groups themselves.
- Corporate filings with the SEC. If a publicly traded company discloses making any contributions to a dark money group, certain SEC filings would show the details of these corporate contributions. The Issue One research team performed Google “x-ray” searches — i.e., searched for the names of these dark money groups on sec.gov — and then assessed the results, removing any false positives.
- Voluntary corporate filings. For a number of years, scores of blue-chip companies in the United States have voluntarily disclosed information about their dues payments to trade associations and contributions to other politically active nonprofits. These disclosures are neither uniform nor standardized. For instance, sometimes this information is released annually; while other times it is released twice a year. Moreover, sometimes these voluntary filings detail only information related to trade association payments; while other times, these filings also detail information related to contributions to politically active “social welfare” nonprofits organized under Sections 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Additionally, sometimes these voluntary filings provide the exact dollar amount a company has contributed to a nonprofit. Yet other times, only a broad range — or a minimum amount — is disclosed. Still other times, only the portion of the contribution that was used for non-deductible political/lobbying expenses is disclosed.
- The Issue One research team identified which corporate filings it would review by cross-referencing information previously published by the Center for Public Integrity (which published a project in 2014 based primarily off filings that detailed corporate contributions to politically active nonprofits in 2012) and the Center for Political Accountability (which maintains an online database at TrackYourCompany.org that primarily contains information regarding corporate contributions in 2015 and 2016).
- Each of the top 15 dark money groups was searched for in both the Center for Public Integrity and Center for Political Accountability’s databases. Most searches didn’t result in any hits, but approximately 100 companies were found to have disclosed information about their contributions over the years to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
- To create a master list of donors to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Issue One research team merged the list of known Chamber donors from 2012 published by the Center for Public Integrity and the list of known Chamber donors from 2015 and 2016 published by the Center for Political Accountability. Then, the Issue One research team took steps to obtain the corresponding primary source documents for these contributions — as well as any other primary source documents available for any of the years since Citizens United. In cases where this information wasn’t readily available on companies’ websites, the Issue One research team contacted corporate spokespeople to obtain these filings. While searching for these primary source materials, documents from a few other companies not on either the Center for Public Integrity list or the Center for Political Accountability list were discovered; these filings were reviewed and included if they contained any relevant information.
- Additional data sources. If additional sources of useful information were discovered, those, too, were searched and assessed. For instance, news articles were searched for relevant information about donors to the top 15 dark money groups. In one case, a health insurance company once disclosed a contribution to a dark money group to an insurance regulator. In another case, the elections regulator in California released a poorly redacted donor list that it obtained as part of a 2013 investigation into the group, which led media organizations and others to identify many of the dark money group’s major donors. And one dark money group — the National Rifle Association — was discovered to have previously published information in an official newsmagazine about some of its donors; some corporate press releases detailing contributions to the NRA were also discovered. All told, some of the 15 top dark money groups have been the subjects of detailed reports over the years, while others have seen little ink.
In some circumstances, additional steps were also undertaken to ascertain whether certain contributions truly went to the politically active dark money group — or simply a related group with a similar name.
For instance, some of the top 15 dark money groups are associated with similarly named charities that operate under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. And some are associated with similarly named political action committees or super PACs that operate under Section 527 of the tax code and report their financial activities to either the IRS or the FEC. Contributions that turned out to be false positives — such as those that actually went to the 501(c)(3) “foundation” arm of a dark money group or to the dark money group’s related PAC/super PAC/527 committee — were omitted. (Because PACs and super PACs report their donors to the FEC and 527 committees report their donors to the IRS, these reports could be cross-referenced to ascertain if certain transactions were false positives that should be omitted.) Occasionally, the Issue One research team contacted officials at the donor organizations with fact-checking questions to clarify certain unclear transactions.
Lastly, as a general rule, in-kind contributions, payments for services, reimbursements for shared staff and similar expenditures found in any of these data sources were omitted from Issue One’s lists of identified donors.
How Issue One identified the top 15 dark money groups
Dark money groups that report political expenditures to the Federal Election Commission are tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics. (For instance, find the 2010 election cycle spending by dark money groups here; the 2012 election cycle spending by dark money groups here; the 2014 election cycle spending by dark money groups here; and the 2016 election cycle spending by dark money groups here.) These figures were analyzed by Issue One and were cross-referenced against primary source documents on the website of the Federal Election Commission to determine the aggregate political spending totals for each of the top 15 dark money groups between January 2010 and December 2016.