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‘Dark money’ left group teaches reporters lessons on ‘dark money’

By   /   May 23, 2014  /   No Comments

By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — The liberal Center for Media and Democracy, which has received at least $680,000 in so-called “dark money,” helped reporters identify conservative dark money donors at a journalism workshop Thursday at the University of Wisconsin.

NOT DARK MONEY?: Center for Media and Democracy research director Nick Surgey claimed Thursday that his liberal organization has not received "dark money" because those dollars are not used to influence elections.

NOT DARK MONEY?: Center for Media and Democracy research director Nick Surgey claimed Thursday that his liberal organization has not received “dark money” because those dollars are not used to influence elections.

Nick Surgey, research director for the progressive Madison-based nonprofit, referred solely to conservative groups like the Koch Brothers, Freedom Partners, Wisconsin Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity during his discussion.

But 70 percent of all “dark money” being raised for the 2014 elections is by liberal groups, according to an investigation in November by Open Secrets.

When asked by Wisconsin Reporter why he had failed to mention the CMD’s dark money donations during the seminar, Surgey said those contributions were different because they were never used to influence elections.

“It’s sort of a misunderstanding of what dark money is,” Surgey said, and then asked that the conversation not be recorded.

The reporters workshop was hosted by the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in partnership with the left-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism — a watchdog journalism group conservatives have accused of promoting left-of-center causes.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism received $535,000 from the Open Society Institute — a nonprofit founded and funded by liberal billionaire George Soros — from 2009 to 2013.

The UW, coincidentally, also pocketed $1,672,397 from Soros between 2000 and 2012, according to the Business and Media Institute. Its University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Communication and Democracy was tasked by the Federal Communications Commission with coming up with criteria for what information is “critical” for Americans to have in a controversial, and now sidelined, FCC study.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, was highly critical of both Democratic and Republican congressmen for blocking the Internal Revenue Service from rewriting tax-exempt status rules to make dark money more transparent.

“When the IRS does tip-toe up to the line and show some interest in cracking down, it’s fascinating how quickly IRS officials are summoned to Capitol Hill, and they are read the proverbial riot act by congressional committees and then suddenly the whole effort drops off the radar for another six months or a year,” McCabe said.

Dark money, a term frequently used by organizations like the CMD to demonize conservative donations made by anonymous donors, is legal under current campaign finance law.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that groups of people, including corporations and labor unions, have individual free speech guarantees made way for a major increase in anonymous donations to tax-exempt groups that engage in political activity.

The CMD bills itself as a progressive watchdog group focused on exposing corporate spin and government propaganda and was active in attacking Republican Gov. Scott Walker during a recent failed John Doe investigation directed at him and his staff.

In 2011, the left-leaning Tides Foundation gave the CMD $160,000 for research during its involvement in an effort to recall Walker, who went on to defeat Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

The Schwab Charitable Fund also gave the Center $260,000 in both 2011 and 2012, for a total of $520,000.

Schwab is neither listed on the Center’s tax returns, which list no donors, nor on its website listing numerous other financial backers. However, the Tides Foundation is included on the website.

When Wisconsin Reporter asked Surgey why CMD and the media focus more on right wing dark money than left wing, he directed all questions to executive director Lisa Graves.

Surgey said he was at the workshop only to give information on tracking dark money and wasn’t prepared to discuss his organization’s funding.

Graves told Wisconsin Reporter in late-2013 she doesn’t consider some of CMD’s cash to be dark money because it was managed through the Schwab Charitable Fund.

Schwab is an investment firm, she said, and not the same as the “creature created as Donors Trust,” a conservative fund liberals have labeled the “dark money ATM of the right.”

Schwab, just like Donors Trust and its liberal counterpart Tides Foundation, is a donor-advised fund, a financial institution that manages contributions to nonprofits. Donors may remain anonymous.

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Wisconsin Reporter’s parent, uses the same sort of donor-advised fund. The Franklin Center doesn’t disclose its donors.

“The question of conservative funders versus liberal funders, I think, is a matter of false equivalency,” Graves said. “Quite frankly a number of these (corporate donors) like Koch Industries … they’re advancing not just an ideological agenda but an agenda that helps advance the bottom line of their corporate interests. That’s quite a distinct difference from some of the funders in the progressive universe.”

Contact Adam Tobias at atobias@watchdog.org or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias

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Adam Tobias, a 2004 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, joined Wisconsin Reporter in 2013 after working for two daily newspapers for nearly 10 years. In addition to winning first-place awards from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and West Virginia Press Association, Adam’s stories have appeared on Fox News, the Washington Times, National Review Online, Human Events, Breitbart and Right Wing News. Contact Adam at atobias@watchdog.org or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias.