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Report finds ‘dark money’ scolder CMD doesn’t disclose union donations

By   /   January 19, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – The Center for Media and Democracy likes to position itself as a crusader against anonymous contributions in the political realm.

But despite CMD’s self-righteous fight against so-called “dark money” in politics, the left-wing propaganda machine apparently doesn’t mind keeping the public in the dark about some big labor union checks it has cashed.

In fact, mega labor donors make up a pretty sizable share of CMD’s revenue, according to a new review of the organization’s latest tax records by the Center for Union Facts, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that “fights for transparency and accountability in America’s labor movement.”

Madison-based CMD, a “critical cog in the Wisconsin liberal-progressive infrastructure network, has taken significant funding from major labor unions in recent years,” Union Facts states.

File photo from Democracy Now

THAT’S DIFFERENT: Lisa Graves, executive director of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, says her group not disclosing union contributions is different from the ‘dark money’ in conservative circles. A new report discloses that CMD has failed to disclose significant donations from big unions.

In 2013, $118,000 in identifiable union expenditures went to CMD, accounting for nearly 14 percent of the organization’s contribution and grant revenue.

It should be no surprise that this mouthpiece of organized labor has taken so much union money.

As CMD’s executive director Lisa Graves told Wisconsin Reporter Friday, “CMD is a union shop, and we work with community groups including unions and other non-profits to help spread the word on corporate distortion of public policy.”

Graves sent a follow-up email hastening to point out that “union shop” means that “we collectively bargain with our staff and I trust that term won’t be mischaracterized.”

Graves called the undisclosed union donations “a small percent of its overall funding.”

What is interesting is that CMD, purveyor of the evil conservative “dark money” narrative, has failed to disclose donations from the big labor unions on its contributor list.

Conspicuously absent are the three international labor unions known to fund CMD: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO, and Service Employees International Union.

“CMD – which purports to accept ‘donations from individuals and philanthropic foundations through gifts and grants’ and lists what it purports to be a list of past and current foundation funders – does not explicitly acknowledge (in its IRS filings or on its website) that it receives significant funding from labor unions,” the Center for Union Facts report notes.

But CMD’s undisclosed donations aren’t “dark money,” Graves contends.

“ … (A)s we have made clear time and time again ‘dark money’ is money spent on ads to influence elections without disclosing the donors and the reason it is called ‘dark’ money is because money given directly to an electoral candidate is supposed to be disclosed to prevent corruption of politicians and lawmaking,” Graves said. “The agenda to paint us with that brush ignores the plain meaning and context of that term, which I wonder if you will print.”

Yet, CMD has shrilly criticized conservative organizations, such as Wisconsin Reporter’s parent company, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, for accepting anonymous, undisclosed donations – something CMD seems to have no problem doing with its big, secret union checks.

And how’s this for a little quid pro quo?

“Koch-Tied Group Pushes New Union Busting Bill in Wisconsin.”

“ALEC Bills Quash Public Sector Unions, New Study Finds.”

Those are just two of many headlines found at CMD’s left-wing, big labor-cheering site, PR Watch, one of several liberal propaganda machines run by CMD. The “dark money” conspiracy theorists publishes a lot of union advocacy stories, presumably using the big checks organized labor is sending CMD’s way.

But so what. That’s not illegal. CMD has every right to support causes and organizations it deems important, as do right-of-center groups. And they can all do so under the constitutional protections of anonymous speech that have existed since before the founding of this nation.

CMD wants to change the rules, however — at least for their conservative enemies.

There was a time, about four years ago, when CMD eschewed contributions from organized labor.

“CMD does NOT accept corporate, labor union or government grants,” the organization’s website stated as late as late as November 2010.

On Dec. 20, 2010, according to a Center for Union Facts analysis of the Internet cache, CMD removed ‘labor unions’ from the prohibited list of donors.

“CMD does NOT accept money from corporations or grants from government agencies. Contributions from individuals and non-profit organizations are accepted …” the organization boasted.

“The statement that CMD would not take money from labor unions quietly disappeared,” Union Facts report states. “It is unknown precisely why this occurred, although the closeness to the 2010 (general) elections cannot be ignored.”

Within days of Republicans sweeping into office in Wisconsin, led by Scott Walker’s victory as governor, union donations seemingly became acceptable to CMD.

Big Labor soon camped out in the state, leading protests of thousands against Walker’s public sector collective bargaining reforms known as Act 10, and driving a failed recall campaign against the Republican governor, his lieutenant governor and Republican senators in 2011 and 2012.

Wisconsin Reporter photo

FULL HOUSE: Tens of Thousands protested in Madison in 2011, and taxpayers paid millions to keep the peace.

“By no later than May 2012, CMD was receiving significant sums from the AFL-CIO, according to the U.S. Department of Labor filings,” Union Facts wrote.

It’s possible CMD was taking in union contributions much earlier. Under the 1959 Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which governs the Department of Labor, only national union federations and unions with private-sector nonagricultural members must file financial disclosures. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, WEAC, for instance, is exempt from such reporting.

Graves said CMD changed its point of view on accepting union cash after she took the leadership post in 2010.

“After I became the leader of CMD, we began a review of our policies and practices, and it was my view that the Supreme Court was wrong in Citizens United to equate corporations and unions and that the old policy reinforced that so we changed it,” she said of the landmark court decision that lifted campaign finance restrictions.

Graves said CMD has supported disclosure rules for both corporations and labor unions for electoral activities in the wake of Citizens United.

CMD likes to paint itself as a “grassroots” organization.

The Center for Union Facts review of CMD’s latest tax return found that 72 percent of CMD’s revenue came from reportable, large contributions — $25,000 or more. Two of those came from labor unions.

This isn’t CMD’s first time at the “dark money” rodeo.

A December 2013 Watchdog.org review of financial documents revealed CMD, received $520,000 in undisclosed donor checks in 2011 from the Schwab Charitable Fund. That was 60 percent of the $864,740 CMD received that year.

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 Walker.

At the time, Graves told Watchdog.org that she had no idea where two checks totaling $520,000 came from. She said she would “swear on a stack of Bibles or any other religious text” as proof of her ignorance.

Again, Graves refuted the “dark money” claim.

“Schwab is an investment firm. It’s not the same as the creature created as Donors Trust,” Graves said, referring to the conservative fund that liberal groups like CMD have labeled the “dark money ATM of the right.”

Charitable giving experts say that’s not true. Both funds operate similarly.


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.