Money Talks: Even when the donors are secret

May 15, 2012

It appears a superPAC and other political groups are coordinating their purchases of TV ads running in Michigan.  This means a more efficient use of secret money to influence voters.

Michigan TV stations across the state are running a series of ads critical of President Obama and his administration.

Here's an example of one of the ads.

The messages of these ads are similar, they have the same look. And, as it turns out, that’s not all they have in common.

One day last week I joined Rich Robinson with Michigan Campaign Finance Network, inspecting public files at some TV stations in Michigan. The FCC requires stations keep public records of political ad purchases. Many times this is the only record of spending by some political groups. As we looked at the paperwork at a Grand Rapids TV station, Robinson noticed a pattern regarding the purchase of the ads.

“They’re all being done by the same ad agency, so this is clearly a coordinated kind of an effort. One group will run spots for two weeks, the next group picks up two weeks, the next group picks up two weeks. So it’s almost like a relay race being run through one ad agency. That’s different,” Robinson explained as he looked through the files.

All five of the political groups are politically conservative.

Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, 60 Plus Association, and American Energy Alliance are all 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporations. They don’t have to reveal where they get their money. Also in the mix is a superPAC, Restore Our Future, which is closely aligned with the Mitt Romney campaign. 

Rich Robinson says the coordinated effort in Michigan adds up.

“Millions of dollars have been spent in Michigan, characterizing the Obama administration and its policies and there will be no accountability for who’s behind that. You know, they can say it’s the Committee for God and Country or American Future Fund, but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know who’s putting the money into that,” Robinson said.

So far this year, close to $4 million has been spent on Michigan TV alone.

It’s just a small part of what is expected to be record-breaking amounts of money in an attempt to influence voters this election year.

Kathy Kiely is with the group Sunlight Foundation. That group wants more transparency in campaign finances. She says as far as she knows, this kind of coordination of secret money hasn’t been detected anywhere else in the nation.  

And right now the only way we know about them is because Michigan Campaign Finance Network and Rich Robinson go from TV station to TV station, inspecting the files…and let reporters like me tag along…

“This is something that’s fascinating. It’s just, it’s a fascinating new wrinkle, I think, in campaign finance. And, you’ve discovered it and thanks to your shoe leather reporting, I think people are going to know something we wouldn’t have known otherwise. So, bravo to you,” Kiely said during a telephone interview.

Well, bravo to Rich Robinson. He's keeping track of this stuff more than anyone else in the state.

Kiely says voters should take notice of how political groups are combining their spending power.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s a fairly new phenomenon because superPACs themselves are such a new phenomenon and we’re certainly seeing a surge of independent money like we’ve never seen before in these races,” she said.

While conservative groups are doing this right now, any advantage by one side of politics is quickly followed by the other side. This is not about whether it’s Republicans or Democrats. This is about the political influence of money and who’s buying the ads blaring on the TV in your living room.