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Report: $22 Million In Dark Money Behind Kavanaugh Nomination

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

A just-published report by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics’ award-winning OpenSecrets.org reveals the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative secretive dark money group received $22 million from anonymous donors in the year leading up to the Tump administration and conservatives’ push to place Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court.

A full $17 million of that $22 million came from one anonymous donor.

“The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, pledged to spend as much as $10 million to ensure Kavanaugh’s confirmation — the same amount that it spent to help confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017,” Anna Massoglia and Andrew Perez at OpenSecrets reveal in their report Friday.

“JCN has close ties to Trump’s judicial adviser Leonard Leo, a longtime executive at the Federalist Society, the influential conservative and libertarian lawyers network based in Washington, D.C.”

If you’re not familiar with the Judicial Crisis Network, here’s one of their ads you may have seen on TV in the run up to the Kavanaugh confirmation vote:

 

Here’s where it gets even more disturbing.

“The bulk of JCN’s funding has typically come from the Wellspring Committee, another secretive nonprofit run by operatives who wear multiple hats in a larger network of opaque groups.”

That “larger network of opaque groups” links to another OpenSecrets report: “New clues link $1 million Trump inauguration mystery money to secretive ‘dark money’ network.”

OpenSecrets adds, “Wellspring has continued to send massive annual endowments to JCN since the group launched in 2005. JCN, in turn, has continued to pour tens of millions of dollars into every subsequent Supreme Court nomination fight and working to reshape the judiciary. Wellspring reported donating almost $15 million to JCN in 2017, on top of $23.5 million in 2016. Neither organization discloses the sources of its funds.”

 

Bannon’s Gravy Train Is Secretive Radical Right-Wing Billionaire Family

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet

Donald Trump’s elevation of Breitbart News CEO Stephen Bannon to chief White House strategist is prompting many to ominously predict the Trump presidency will be like the worst of the campaign. But there’s an even more disturbing power play in the works.

Before Bannon turned “Breitbart News into Trump Pravda,” as one ex-Breitbart writer put it, Bannon backed 2016’s darkest ideologue, Republican Ted Cruz. Bannon went all-in for Cruz, not just because of his libertarian economics, but because his patron and ally, the family of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, enlisted him and other Mercer-funded political assets for Cruz.

“Breitbart News was cranking out a stream of favorable Cruz stories,” Politico recounted in September. “And both the Mercer-backed pro-Cruz super PAC, ‘Keep the Promise I,’ and the Cruz campaign signed up Cambridge Analytica [Mercer’s data research firm]. And only hours after the Texas senator officially launched his campaign at the Christian university Liberty University, he and his wife appeared at [daughter] Bekah Mercer’s extravagant Upper West Side apartment for a fundraiser.”

The Mercers, led by Rebekah, didn’t quit after Cruz’s bid failed. They met with Trump’s children and the nominee, and in August their team, including Bannon and pollster Kellyanne Conway, were running Trump’s presidential campaign. As Politico noted, people who know the Mercers and their team said they were working for a far-right agenda, not any particular Republican candidate.

“I don’t think it’s about Trump. Trump is just a vehicle,” a Mercer family colleague told Politico. “It’s about wanting to be a player and wanting to beat Hillary, in that order. Because if you remember, they wanted to use Cruz as a vehicle before that. They do want to beat Hillary, but they also want to beat the Kochs and Paul Singer and the Ricketts [other far-right billionaires].”

This week, when Bloomberg described how campaign CEO Bannon directed Cambridge Analytics to test-market Brexit-like messages to white voters in Rust Belt states, Bannon had chilling words for anyone who believes in progressive federal government.

“This is not the French Revolution,” Bannon said, characterizing Trump’s achievement and goals. “They destroyed the basic institutions of their society and changed their form of government. What Trump represents is a restoration—a restoration of true American capitalism and a revolution against state-sponsored socialism. Elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans.”

Who’s Calling Who Elite?

Bannon’s revolution is being led by the very people Trump demonized in his final political ads in Rust Belt states—the elite players in American finance and media. No one epitomizes that contradiction as clearly as the billionaire Mercers, and their long embrace of Trump’s new White House strategist, Bannon, who made a fortune at Goldman Sachs and in Hollywood before taking over Breitbart.

Bannon, who grew up in a Democratic household in Virginia, was a Navy veteran who became a Wall Street trader before turning to media. He is among a handful of grantees and causes that have been boosted by multimillion dollar investments or infusions from the Mercer family. Breitbart received $10 million, and in turn, as Politico said, dutifully publicized Mercer grantees and causes, including some of the most notorious right-wingers, such as the activists who made the 2008 anti-Hillary Clinton movie that led to the Citizens United lawsuit and U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the few remaining limits on campaign cash.

Breitbart, under Bannon, has relished vulgar attacks on liberals. It’s compared feminists and Planned Parenthood to Nazis, has had anti-Semitic headlines and embraced a spectrum of white supremacist causes. Two decades ago, Bannon’s wife filed domestic abuse charges that were eventually dropped. Early in the campaign, a Bannon-run non-profit, the Government Accountability Institute, astoundingly convinced the New York Times and other mainstream papers to partner with it and publish reports based on its latest attack on the Clintons, a book called Clinton Cash. As Bannon told Bloomberg in an extensive profile later in 2015, that “weaponized” the attacks, because old attacks broke out of the right-wing echo chamber and spread like a virus through the mainstream media.

Establishment Republicans have criticized Bannon’s so-called alt-right publications, and he has drawn considerable wrath from Democrats. But his uncompromising posture and no-holds-barred tactics appealed to the Mercers, who saw other libertarian activists, such as the Koch brothers, as being too genteel—despite spending multi-millions against Democrats.

As AlterNet’s February profile of the Mercer family detailed, they embrace virtually every ultra-right posture, from backing the most ardent climate science deniers (Heartland Institute), to reviving the gold standard behind the dollar (American Principles Project), to encouraging physicians to stockpile drugs in response to Obamacare (Doctors for Disaster Preparedness). Their fights with the Internal Revenue Service make Trump’s $900 million write-off in the mid-1990s seem paltry. Mercer’s computerized trading firm, Renaissance Technologies, has spent years fighting a $6.8 billion tax bill, Bloomberg has said.

Family patriarch Robert Mercer is notoriously publicity averse. But one daughter, Rebekah, isn’t, and has become one of the most powerful women in Republican circles. Last summer, according to a series of reports in the New York Times, Politico, The Hill and other  outlets, she persuaded the Trump family—the candidate, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner—to replace his campaign team with Bannon and their longtime pollster Conway, and to incorporate their data-mining operation, Cambridge Analytica, to expand the campaign’s voter targeting. That came after a series of conversations at Trump fundraisers and private dinners.

“A few days later, one of the guests, Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, would become Mr. Trump’s campaign chief in a sudden shake-up,” the Times wrote in mid-August. “But it was a guest without a formal role in the campaign, a conservative philanthropist named Rebekah Mercer, who has now become one of its most potent forces.”

The Times described the family’s relationship to Trump’s new team. “Mr. Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is a veteran Republican pollster who previously oversaw a super PAC financed by the Mercers. Mr. Bannon oversaw Breitbart, an outlet that has often amplified Mr. Trump’s message and attacked his perceived enemies. Mr. Mercer reportedly invested $10 million in Breitbart several years ago, and most likely still has a stake: A company sharing an address with Renaissance Technologies, the hedge fund Mr. Mercer helps lead, remains an investor in Breitbart, according to corporate documents filed in Delaware.”

“Mr. Trump is also relying on Cambridge Analytica, a voter data firm backed by Mr. Mercer, whose staff members are working with Mr. Trump’s vendors to identify potential Trump supporters in the electorate, particularly among infrequent voters,” the Times said. “A Mercer-backed super PAC supporting Mr. Trump is now being shepherded by David Bossie, a conservative activist whose own projects [Citizens United] have been funded in part by the Mercers’ family foundation, according to tax documents. Mr. Bannon has worked particularly closely with the family in recent years.

“I think they have complete confidence, and rightly so, in Steve Bannon’s decisions and what he brings to the table politically,” Bossie told the paper. “He has been smart and successful in running these different political operations. And those things have come to the Mercers’ attention.”

It has become a cliche that no one knows how Trump will really govern because of a lack of specifics during the campaign. But it is clear what libertarians like the Mercers want—to remove any obstacle preventing corporations and the super-rich from enlarging their wealth; and what ideologues like Bannon want—the dismantling of federal safety nets, from the 1930s New Deal to Obamacare, the expansion of policing and immigration enforcement, and no action on climate change to create a post-carbon energy system.

For years, Robert Mercer quietly poured tens of millions of dollars into far-right political causes. But it took his daughter, Rebekah, to embrace the bulls in the GOP china shop—first Cruz and then Trump. When Trump assumes office in January, Bannon will be on the podium. And quietly observing the spectacle will be one of the real powers behind the throne, the libertarian billionaire Mercer family.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).

IMAGE: Steve Bannon, head of the news website Breitbart News, was named to the new position of campaign chief executive officer. Bannon, a conservative flamethrower was referred to by ousted Corey Lewandowski as “a street fighter” like himself. The campaign statement announcing the changes touted a Bloomberg Politics article that branded Bannon “the most dangerous political operative in America.”  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Tug On Any Right-Wing Thread To Find The Koch Connection

Tug on any right-wing thread in America and you’ll most likely find that it’s tied to the multi-billionaire Koch boys, Charles and David. While the brothers are infamous for funneling hundreds of millions of campaign dollars to presidential, congressional and gubernatorial politicos willing to embrace their self-serving agenda, few know of their equally self-serving push to bend whole state governments their way. In addition to the $37 million that their industrial conglomerate, Koch Industries, has pumped into politicians, PACs and ballot initiatives in the past two decades, the Kochs are dominant players in all things American Legislative Exchange Council:

—To keep watch on the front group, the Kochs placed their own lobbyist on ALEC’s corporate board.

—At least five Koch-funded groups are sponsors of and active participants in ALEC, including Americans for Prosperity, State Policy Network (a coordinating body for Koch-minded think tanks in all 50 states), Heartland Institute, Mercatus Center and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

—In the past two decades, Koch-controlled nonprofit foundations funneled $23 million into ALEC and sponsoring groups.

—In the past 14 years, two secretive “dark money” funds used by the brothers — Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund — poured an additional $77 million into ALEC and the sponsoring groups.

This spring, the duo and several of their billionaire brethren announced that they would put nearly a billion dollars into the 2016 national elections, with a big chunk to Koch-ize the White House. But then Trump happened. Charlie and Dave don’t cotton to The Donald so they made quite a show of announcing in July that they would back no presidential candidate this fall.

But while pundits were gazing dreamily at the prospect of an election year without the ponderous weight of Koch cash skewing the presidential race, oodles of money from the brothers’ campaign cache were being wormed deep into our country’s political terrain, nurturing right-wing corporatists running to fill such down-ballot seats of power as state legislators, attorneys general, judges and secretaries of state. Digging into only a few of the opaque political funds of the multi-tentacled Koch network, the excellent watchdog group Center for Media Democracy uncovered 58 Koch-funded candidates for state legislative seats in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The actual number could be much larger, for the bulk of the network’s donations go through “dark money” channels that hide the names of donors and recipients.

It’s easy to become mesmerized by The Spectacular Donald Show in this year’s political circus, but it’s time for progressives to focus on the outer rings, where the Kochs, ALEC and their corporate cohorts have laid siege to our state governments. More than a firefight here or an ambush there, they have launched a massive, coordinated maneuver to conquer the countryside. If you doubt that the strategy has gone local, consider this stunning fact: Even though the Kochs did not back a presidential campaign and say that they were concentrating on only a half dozen U.S. Senate races this year, they deployed 1,600 paid political staffers into 38 states to drive elections and policy campaigns.

This is why we must pay attention. Donald Trump is not the only — or even the biggest — real and present danger to our democratic republic. As Arn Pearson, general counsel of CMD, warns: “There are a lot of different parts of the Koch machine pulling on this oar. From their think tanks up through their elected officials, they’re pushing on it. Hard.” You might think this is madness, but madness — spurred by plutocratic greed — is the new American political reality. Just being progressive won’t stop it. We have to get aggressively progressive to confront and defeat the Kochheads in our states.

Rolling back the effects of the continuing decades-long attack on America’s ideal of the common good will take some work. Roll up your sleeves and get started. Check out Center for Media Democracy and www.ALECexposed.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Truthout.org via Flickr

The IRS Isn’t Persecuting Tea Party Groups — It’s Regulating ‘Dark Money’

On Tuesday, a list of 426 groups singled out for extra scrutiny when applying for tax-exempt status was made publicly available. These organizations, many associated with the “Tea Party” movement, comprise the “victims” in the Great IRS Scandal of 2013, referring to outrage over intrusive questioning of pending groups and delayed approvals of applications and tax-exempt statuses seemingly based on extreme-right wing political views.

The scandal led to a lawsuit from the NorCal Tea Party Patriots, which for three years battled with the IRS to get the list of targeted groups released. The perceived misconduct also resulted in national scrutiny of the Obama administration — which was accused of coordinating the effort — and the IRS, as well as calls for the impeachment of the agency’s Director of the Exempt Organization’s unit, Lois Lerner, who eventually resigned in the midst of the controversy.

There are several elephants in this room that GOP officials ignore in their condemnations of the IRS: Mainly, that progressive and liberal groups were also targeted for extra scrutiny in 2013. And also that the Tea Party groups that received extra scrutiny had names involving buzzwords such as “Tea Party,” “liberty,” “patriot,” and “9/12” — referring to the 9/12 movement started by conservative advocate Glenn Beck — thus tagging them with an obvious political affiliation that rightly placed them under the microscope.

Why extra scrutiny for political activity? Easy: 501(c)(4) groups — like The National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club — may engage in political activities, as long as these activities do not constitute a group’s primary purpose. What does “primary” mean? The IRS hasn’t said. But because these 501(c)(4)s are supposed to be primarily focused on “social welfare,” they are legally allowed to keep their donors secret. They are the “dark money” groups you hear so much about: Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, or the liberal Patriot Majority USA.

These groups cannot contribute to active political campaigns, but they can lobby elected officials. However, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it’s easy for 501(c)(4)’s to spend most if not all of their money on elections, and they can do so without blatantly breaking the rules by following a simple formula:

Millions of dollars in anonymous contributions are divided into separate contributions to different organizations within a political network. These groups then distribute the bulk of their proceeds to other organizations in their network, which then donate to another, not directly connected nonprofit with a straightforward social welfare function but is allied politically with the network.

Each donation is made in the name of the “social welfare” cause the group named when applying for tax-exemption status, thus counterbalancing political expenditures. Each donating group counts its donation as income, which it spends on permitted political projects. Donations to other groups comprise the 51 percent of operations that should not be allocated to direct political activity, to which each organization then devotes the remaining 49 percent of its budget.

The organizations won’t have to report the transfers until well after election time, allowing many to slip through the cracks undetected.

Dark Money Alchemy

Some groups protect themselves from regulation by spending on “educational” political advertisements, which often go unreported to the Federal Elections Commission, thus requiring an IRS audit to detect them, and the IRS only audits seven of every 1,000 annual nonprofit tax returns each year.

Political advertising has exploded in 2016, CRP reports. Senate races especially have seen “historic amounts of dark money spending.”

Almost 60 percent of money spent by outside organizations in Senate races has come from dark money groups, and while this is comparable to 2014, the amount is much higher than that of 2012. While the number of ads run in 2016 is similar to that in 2012, a Wesleyan Media Project report from that year found no 501(c) to have run over 800 ad spots by this point in the 2012 Senate race, while this year 10 nonprofits have purchased more spots and five have bought thousands.

In Pennsylvania, for example, a state that saw a highly contested Democratic Senate primary preceding what will likely be a close general election, the amount of ads purchased doubles that of any other state, and organizations that don’t disclose their donors paid for much of it.

Dark money organizations are responsible for 28,551 ads in Senate races to date. According to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, Senate candidates, who don’t enjoy the same free media benefits as presidential candidates, are “leaning more than ever on groups that can accept unlimited anonymous contributions.”

Because some of these groups are running issue ads that don’t promote or denounce candidates, they haven’t technically been required to report their spending to the FEC. For instance, One Nation — which is managed by the same people who run Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — has run over 4,000 ads in seven states, and Concerned Veterans for America, which has ties to the Koch brothers, has run over 1,500, all of which have gone unreported.

It’s easy to see why federal oversight of “dark money” groups is so necessary.

In May, the New York Times ran an op-ed by attorneys Kathleen M. Donovan-Maher and Steven L. Groopman that addressed a rule proposed by the SEC which would require corporations to report the recipients and amounts of their political donations. The proposal has been applauded by a bipartisan group of former SEC commissioners, state treasurers and law professors who think the status quo jeopardizes the democratic process.

Those against the change say they are exercising their First amendment right to free speech, the exact line of thought that gave us Citizens United — the “money is speech” decision that 77 percent of Americans want to see overturned.

According to a November 2015 report from Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans say “the high cost of running a presidential campaign discourages many good candidates from running,” and the same amount held this view almost 30 years ago in 1988.

“Most Americans,” the report reads, “including majorities in both parties, believe that new laws would be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.”

Photo: A security camera hangs near a corner of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Washington May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Graphic: Center for Responsive Politics