DES MOINES—Liberal activist groups have a well-worn playbook for garnering favorable press coverage from the State Capitol press corps: gather a small crowd (not that difficult, especially if the assembled are students, public employees or unemployed), recruit a compliant legislator and announce a press conference to bash your opponents as not just wrong but corrupt.
Many reporters label the Iowa Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) a “good government” or “reform” group. The Des Moines Register referred to PIRG as part of a “coalition of good government groups” calling for “campaign finance reform.” Radio Iowa also featured the organization’s “push for campaign finance reform.”
About 50-60 people attended a lobbying day on campaign finance issues at the State Capitol Wednesday, a PIRG lobbyist told TheIowaRepublican.com. At noon, Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, touted three bills to increase regulation on political groups and campaigns that he plans to introduce this session (they stalled last year).
PIRG and other left-leaning coalition members then held an afternoon press conference with Sen. President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. In between, PIRG members lobbied legislators’ offices. The organization released a report Wednesday titled “Outside Spending, Outsized Influence: Big and Secret Money in Iowa in the 2012 Elections.” The document criticized “outside, special interest money” as well as “dark money groups.”
“Groups federally registered outside of Iowa accounted for 96.21% of all outside spending in Iowa House races,” according to PIRG’s analysis. “Out‐of‐state spenders are likely to put their own priorities ahead of the needs and interests of Iowans, thus skewing the relationships that [r]epresentatives have with their constituencies.”
PIRG, however, doesn’t practice what it preaches.
Iowa Public Interest Research Group, Inc. is listed as a nonprofit corporation based in Albuquerque, N.M., according to the social welfare group’s 2009 tax return. The 501(c)(4) entity’s tax status—the same structure of groups that PIRG criticizes—enables the lobbying group to shield its donors from public scrutiny. Thankfully, PIRG’s lobbying arm has pretty paltry revenue: it raised just $25,771 ($18,406 of which was in grants from other entities) in the period covering July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010. Whew, our republic is safe!
[update: As a federation of state PIRG groups, we have centralized administrative staff who handle returns for all the states (It allows us to keep our costs down in each state so that we can devote more of our funding to our actual campaigns). This was clearly an error, because the address listed is for our N.M. PIRG office. I’ve brought it to the attention of our regional administrator, though I don’t think there is much she can do to fix it for 2009,” Ashe told TheIowaRepublican.com Friday.]
Iowa Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, Inc., the 501(c)(3) nonprofit actually based in Iowa, also had a rough 2009. The group raised only $10,300 that year from “secret” donors ($7,489 of which was in grants from other entities; plus $85,302 left over from previous years). That’s a huge increase from 2007, when the group raised $815.
Why doesn’t PIRG consider itself a bunch of hypocrites?
Their answer is convoluted. The group advocates for policies and lobbies lawmakers, but it doesn’t explicitly endorse candidates, make contributions to campaign committees or engage in independent campaign spending.
“Since we don’t actually participate in any spending in elections as an organization, we don’t release the names of our donors simply because we’re not participating in campaign spending,” said Sonia Ashe, a registered lobbyist for Iowa PIRG.
Circular logic aside, Iowa PIRG favors broad disclosure laws, Ashe said. However, PIRG doesn’t support laws that would require PIRG to reveal its supporters (PIRG declined to release its high- or low-dollar donors to TheIowaRepublican.com).
“The public isn’t as aware as they could be about the sheer number of lobbyists that you have representing nonprofit organizations, business groups or specific special interest groups,” she said.
But if PIRG consideres unlimited, anonymous campaign spending corrupting, why not unlimited, anonymous spending on lobbying? (Hint: anonymous spending by liberal groups is good; undisclosed campaign activities by business groups or conservatives are bad)
U.S. PIRG is a federation of the state-level entities, which PIRG claims are “independent… citizen-funded organizations that advocate for the public interest.” PIRG, based in Massachusetts, also has a lobbying arm in Washington, D.C. The federation was founded by Ralph Nader and other progressives in the 1970s. Their Iowa outfit has about 3,500 members on its email list, concentrated mainly in urban areas.
Besides its status as a scary, out-of-state special interest-corporation trying to destroy Iowa’s democracy, Iowa PIRG, Inc. also seems to have an issue with filing its tax returns, which nonprofits are required to do annually and make available to the public. GuideStar, a charity that posts such tax records, only has listings for Iowa PIRG’s tax forms, including its 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), as of fiscal year 2009, covering activity up to June 30, 2010.
PIRG’s 2010 report, covering donations from July 1, 2010-June 30, 2011 should have been filed with the IRS by Nov. 15, 2011, but the IRS offers extensions until Feb. 15, 2012 or May 15, 2012. The penalty, though, is only $20 a day ($10,000 maximum).
“I don’t have a more recent example that we were able to track down,” Ashe said. “I don’t really have a good answer.”
Nonetheless, the group received virtually no scrutiny Wednesday as journalists dutifully reported on its slurs against other citizen groups and advocacy organizations as evil corruptors of the American Republic.
Radio Iowa repeated the group’s rhetoric that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission “granted corporations ‘personhood’—and the ability to make unlimited campaign donations.”
The 2010 decision, which prohibited the government from banning independent, campaign-related spending by labor unions, nonprofit advocacy groups and companies, did not grant companies “personhood.” That concept has existed in U.S. law since the 1800s. Indeed, the Des Moines Register and other media companies enjoy corporate First Amendment rights—not simply individual reporters as real, live persons.
Moreover, the decision did not allow the “ability to make unlimited campaign donations.” In Iowa, as well as many other states, individuals can give unlimited, disclosed sums directly to candidates. But that’s still illegal at the federal level. Citizens United merely prevents the government from prohibiting groups from engaging in independent political advocacy in campaigns.
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