By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — A nonprofit running ads attacking Gov. Tom Corbett received at least $180,000 last year from a powerful national labor union.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability, a Pittsburgh-based “social welfare nonprofit” is exploiting a loophole in state campaign finance laws to avoid filing reports on donations and expenditures. In addition to their attacks on Corbett, the group paid for mailers attacking Republican incumbents in four state House races during the final weeks of the 2012 campaign.
But a federal database of union spending gives one hint about where they got their funding.
The U.S. Department of Labor database shows that Pennsylvanians for Accountability received $180,000 from the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, in October 2012.
The contribution coincides with the distribution of campaign mailers paid for by Pennsylvanians for Accountability.
The labor department report indicates that the SEIU cash was used for “support for political advocacy” and describes the nonprofit recipient as a “political organization.”
But that does not fit with the group’s designation as filed with the state Department of State.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability is listed as a nonprofit 501(c)4, a designation that allows a group to keep donors secret and to engage in limited political activity, as long as those activities are not the sole or primary purpose the corporation exists.
The group’s spokeswoman, Lynsey Kryzwick, did not return multiple requests for information on Pennsylvanians for Accountability’s primary purpose.
Earlier she said the group consisted of “parents and students, homeowners and young people, the unemployed and the hard working” who were concerned about Corbett’s policies and the future of Pennsylvania.
The group’s website provides little public information and seems to serve only as a platform for the political ads the group has been running.
And there are other ties to politically powerful unions as well. The three people listed as incorporators on the group’s registration with the Department of State have ties to the SEIU and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, a teachers’ union.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which advocates for accountable and transparent government, said shadowy political groups that are dodging campaign finance laws are a problem on both sides of the partisan divide.
“Every organization has an obligation to fully comply with the law and to be registered in line with their activities,” he said.
In the case of Pennsylvanians for Accountability, Republicans say the group looks like a political action committee and operates like a political action committee — so why isn’t it registered as a political action committee?
State Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said the mailers the group paid for last year were “clearly trying to influence the outcome of an election.”
“I don’t have a problem with the content of the pieces,” Reed said. “In an election, anything is fair game, but I want them to disclose the information just like everyone else is required to.”
Matthew Keeler, spokesman for the Department of State, could not comment on whether the department is reviewing the group’s status.
“But if they are operating like a PAC, they would have to be registered as a PAC,” he said.
But Democrats say Republican outrage is a bit hypocritical, since Corbett and other Republicans also have benefited from campaign contributions through back-door channels like national nonprofits that do not disclose their funding sources.
According to a report from the Center for Public Integrity, Corbett benefited from $1.5 million in anonymous contributions during his 2010 gubernatorial election. Most of that money seems to have funneled from the Republican Governors Association, a campaign group, to Corbett’s campaign through a series of political action committees in Pennsylvania.
But at least those PACs filed reports, making the money difficult — but not impossible — to track as it wound through various levels of giving and receiving.
In general, better reporting requirements and stiffer finance laws are needed, particularly in the wake of the Citizens United ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that opened loopholes in federal election laws, Kauffman said.
And it’s up to the state to reform its own laws to prevent groups from dodging reporting requirements, he said.
“The people of this country have a right to know who is trying to influence the outcome of elections,” Kauffman said. “Disclosure is there for a reason. It’s so people know who is backing which candidates.”
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