by Kim Barker, ProPublica
It was mid-July and I had come to Hilltop Public Solutions because Jessie Bradley, a partner with the consulting firm, appeared to run two social-welfare nonprofits out of its Washington, D.C., office.
ProPublica was preparing a story about how such groups – also known as 501(c)(4)s for their section of the tax code – were pouring money into elections. The nonprofits run by Bradley, Economy Forward and the Citizens for Strength and Security Action Fund, or CSS Action Fund, had spent more than $3 million supporting Democrats in 2010, records showed.
I wanted the groups’ tax returns and the applications they had submitted to get IRS recognition of their tax-exempt status. The law requires 501(c)(4)s to make these forms available for inspection immediately if someone requests them in person or to provide them by mail within 30 days.
When I reached the office suite listed as Hilltop’s headquarters, however, it turned out to be a law firm.
The firm’s receptionist said Hilltop was located in an inaccessible area of the building and called Bradley to convey my request.
Bradley said she was busy.
The receptionist asked if I could meet with someone else. “She hung up on me,” the secretary said, putting down the phone.
Bradley wasn’t the only one who refused to provide ProPublica with these crucial records, in which social-welfare groups set down, under penalty of perjury, their revenue, spending and involvement with political activities.
Eighteen of 106 social-welfare nonprofits that we identified as having spent money on elections in 2010 would not provide us with these documents, despite repeated requests and reminders that they were legally obligated to do so.
Some groups promised to provide the records, but never did. Others wouldn’t even tell us their addresses, so we couldn’t ask for them in person. (ProPublica got the tax returns from CSS Action Fund and Economy Forward from the IRS. Available records show they never applied to the agency to be recognized as tax-exempt.)
Several groups offered reasons why they couldn’t gather the documents, at least not right away: A death in the family. A wife with cancer.
“It’s the middle of August,” said Neil Corkery of The Annual Fund. “Everyone’s on vacation.”