Groups Seek to Influence Health Care Debate Without Disclosing Donors

The League of American Voters has paid $550,000 for a new round of ads starting this week that target members of Congress who they think are "persuadable" when it comes to their vote on the health care bill, according to Bob Adams, the group's executive director.

The ad buy will bring the expenditures of the group, which was founded in July, up to about $900,000 so far, Adams told Hotsheet.

"We're trying to kill the bill," he said. The group went up with ads in the first week of March in 11 districts; Adams said its ads would be in 21 districts by tomorrow and will ultimately run in roughly 30.

A typical ad from the group is above; many of the spots that make air are "cookie cutter" ads that stick to the same images but swap out the lawmaker's name and accompanying information.

A 501(c)4 non-profit organization, the League is not required by law to disclose its donors. Asked if he would discuss them, Adams said the group had 60,000 members and is "funded by individual donations from all across the country." He says the insurance, medical and pharmaceutical lobbies had not donated to the group. The information cannot be confirmed independently.

"We don't have fat cats bankrolling us like the other guys do," said Adams. He said there was no one individual or group responsible for a majority of the money coming in to help pay for the spots, and that the group had used e-mail outreach and Internet appeals to bring in money.

So why, then, not disclose the donors?

"I will never disclose the name of our donors. When you get down to it, practically, if we were able to disclose the names of our donors, the other side would harass them to the end of the earth," Adams said.

In a September piece on an ad from the League arguing that the health care reform effort "will hurt our seniors," the Huffington Post reported that the group was founded by, among others, political operative Dick Morris, and that it produced an ad within two weeks of being formed.

Conservative attorney James Bopp Jr. is affiliated with a similar group, The Committee for Truth in Politics, a 501(c)4 that spent $2.3 million on ads earlier this year (and that ran a misleading spot criticizing then-candidate Barack Obama during the presidential campaign). The group lacks a Web site and reportedly does not identify its staff or donors.

Bopp, who sued the Federal Election Commission in 2008 over requirements that groups disclose who they are and how much they spend on ads, told Politico last week that he didn't know who was bankrolling the Committee for Truth in Politics and that he "wouldn't tell you if I did."

"They have a right to confidentiality of their donors; like many groups, they're going to respect that confidentiality," he told Politico.

Indeed, groups on both sides of the political spectrum, among them a branch of, have incorporated pressure groups that don't have to disclose their funding in an effort to push their agenda.

But there is a fierce debate over whether or not that's a good idea. While some believe what amounts to anonymous free speech should be protected, others feel that disclosure can "make public discourse more robust," in the words of Center for Responsive Politics Communications Director Dave Levinthal.

"If an organization that is engaging in a media campaign for or against an issue or for or against a candidate declines to disclose where they're getting the money that is fueling those campaigns, it's just more difficult to track their motivation," Levinthal told Hotsheet. He noted that such a group could be funded by people or organizations that "have special interests or narrow interests that may or may not be in the public interest."

The issue of transparency will likely come to the foreground as Congress considers how and if to regulate corporate spending on political ads in the wake of the January Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which cleared the way for corporations to spend unlimited money on campaign advertising even close to an election. It meant that even one week before election day, a company could donate to an interest group that could run the spot on its behalf; while the interest group's name would appear in the ad, the name of the company bankrolling it would not.

Democrats are looking for ways to limit the impact of the ruling, from mandating that companies get approval from their shareholders before spending on a political campaign to barring them from using operating funds in campaign advertising.

Under a proposal from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), CEOs and labor union leaders would have to file campaign donations and expenditures with the Federal Election Commission and appear on camera approving any ads that they run. The proposal also mandates that if an interest group runs an ad, the largest donor to that group would have to make the on-camera disclaimer -- and the top five donors to it would be listed at the end of the ad.