Watchdogs to call for investigation of new liberal groups

Campaign finance watchdog groups came out forcefully Friday against two political groups started by former White House aides and pledged to request a federal investigation.

Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action is a pair of new groups led by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney that will support President Obama’s reelection effort. 

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One of the groups will be a nonprofit 501(c)(4) entity, which will not have to disclose its donors to the public — a practice that Obama harshly criticized last year.

Public-interest groups, which backed Obama’s push for legislation to disclose political groups’ donors, said the liberal groups would be using the same tactics practiced by Republican-leaning outfits in the last election. 

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement that “history has shown us that secret contributions in American elections are a formula for scandal and corruption.”

Wertheimer noted that his group and others sent a letter to the IRS last year asking for a probe of Crossroads GPS, a political nonprofit group that campaigned for Republican candidates.

“We expect to send a similar letter to the IRS in the near future asking for a similar investigation of whether Priorities USA is operating in violation of its section 501(c)(4) tax status because it has a primary purpose of participating in political campaigns in support of, or in opposition to, candidates for public office,” Wertheimer said. 

“Democracy 21 strongly opposes the practice of tax-exempt groups being used as conduits to spend secret contributions to influence federal elections.”

The White House distanced itself from the new political groups Friday. Press secretary Jay Carney said the administration doesn’t “control outside groups.”

“These are not people working for the administration,” Carney said. “The president’s position on disclosure remains the same.”

Nevertheless, other watchdogs said President Obama should condemn the groups, just like he did during last year’s campaign season for other nonprofit organizations that didn’t disclose their donors.

“I'm worried since various news reports say the White House is beginning to look the other way. I haven't heard that from anyone in the White House,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “It would be very reassuring for President Obama to come out and condemn it.”

Holman and others mounted a heavy lobbying campaign last year in favor of the Disclose Act.

The bill was in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on election activities to advocate for or against a candidate’s election. The legislation had the backing of the White House and would have forced nonprofit groups that were sponsoring campaign ads to disclose their donors to the public.

The legislation passed in the House but stalled in the Senate. It is unlikely to be taken up again this Congress due to the new Republican majority in the House.

Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, said the establishment of the new Democratic-leaning groups shows that legislation is still needed.

“The predictable proliferation of these groups from both sides of the aisle is a direct result of court decisions eroding the current campaign finance regime. With the growth of these groups the threat of secret money flooding our elections grows whether it's Democrats or Republicans. Congress should act on disclosure legislation for everyone,” McGehee said.

McGehee also said Obama should condemn the new Democratic-leaning groups.

“Should President Obama condemn these groups? The simple answer is yes for any group that doesn't disclose and engages in efforts to influence the outcome of the election,” McGehee said.

Holman said that the president aligning himself with any political group that doesn’t disclose its donors would run counter to his stated position on campaign finance reform.

“The entire concept of this bothers me a great deal,” Holman said. “This is something that Obama and the White House has steadfastly opposed, as they should.”