By Tori Richards | Watchdog.org
MADISON, Wis. — Two weeks ago, the liberal Center for Media and Democracy kicked off a national campaign to reveal the identities of anonymous contributors to conservative groups in an effort to unseat the GOP governor here.
Now the group may have to answer embarrassing questions about its own anonymous donors.
A Watchdog.org review of financial documents reveals the Madison-based CMD, which bills itself as a journalism organization, received $520,000 in 2011 from the Schwab Charitable Fund. That’s 60 percent of the $864,740 CMD received that year.
CMD lists no donors on its tax returns, but its website identifies numerous financial backers without any financial data. Several are highlighted in bold and labeled “current donors.” But one important name is missing: Schwab.
Schwab is a so-called donor-advised fund, a financial institution that manages contributions to nonprofits so that donors remain anonymous. Such donor-advised funds are legal. Like many nonprofits, Watchdog.org’s parent, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, uses one, too.
But CMD and allied organizations have worked feverishly to suggest the practice is shady — and limited to conservatives. As recently as Monday, CMD attacked the practice on its own website.
“Dozens of groups organized as tax-exempt social welfare non-profits made a mockery of the goals of Wisconsin campaign finance law,” CMD declared.
CMD alleged the consumer advocacy group Club for Growth “was at the center of a tangled web of undisclosed dark money in 2011, raking in millions from out-of-state secret donors and shuffling it to other nonprofits that in turn spent millions on the 2011 and 2012 elections.”
But CMD could look at its own donor list to find evidence of dark money running through a tangled web.
One of its most politically active donors is the Tides Foundation, which gave CMD $160,000 to fund research in 2011 — the same year CMD and others ramped up a recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Walker outraged some liberals by championing reform of public employee unions. The reforms, known as Act 10, survived a federal legal challenge.
Earlier this year, an investigation by Watchdog revealed that top Tides officials logged 92 White House visits in 2012 and helped draft President Obama’s massive stimulus bill. Tides doled out $505,000 to the nonprofit group Catalist to create a voter database, which is sold to liberal clients engaged in partisan election campaigns.
CMD’s “dark money” claim is similar to one made by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat. Multiple sources have told Wisconsin Reporter that Chisholm’s office has issued more than 100 subpoenas to individuals and some 29 conservative organizations. Some of those sources said the Democrat-led probe, conducted secretly under this state’s John Doe law, is aimed at collecting information about and harassing conservative donors in advance of Walker’s 2014 re-election campaign.
On its blog, CMD claimed to know nothing about the reason behind Chisholm’s subpoenas. But it speculated they were related to campaign finance violations — that a 501(c)(3) charity cannot directly try to influence an election.
CMD certainly has the personnel to push a political agenda. Its director is Lisa Graves, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and attorney with the Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She also was a legislative strategist with the ACLU. Her LinkedIn profile is silent on her political connections, instead hyping her publications under CMD. It lists her job category as “publishing.”
“CMD is a national non-profit investigative watchdog group,” Graves wrote on her profile. “Its reporting and analysis focus on exposing corporate influence on policies, politics, and media.”
Contact Tori Richards at [email protected] or on twitter @newswriter2.