Iowans will probably never learn who donated nearly $50,000 to pay for three direct mail pieces promoting Eddie Mauro, a Democratic candidate in the third Congressional district. Rocky Sposato, president of Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow, confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on June 19 that the organization will not disclose its donors.
Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow filed organizing documents with the Secretary of State’s office about a month before the June 5 primary election. The group soon funded three pro-Mauro mailings, which many Democratic voters received during the last week of May. The pictures and rhetoric borrowed heavily from from Mauro’s own campaign messages; aside from the “paid for” statement, the mailings were virtually indistinguishable.
Under federal law, anyone making at least $250 in independent expenditures during a calendar year must file an FEC report and must identify “each person who made a contribution in excess of $200 to the person filing such report for the purpose of furthering the reported independent expenditure.” When I asked Sposato earlier this month whether Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow would ever disclose its donors, he replied, “We are going to follow all the current laws around having a 501(c)(4) and independent expenditures.”
I circled back this week after finding no document on the FEC website naming the pro-Mauro group’s donors. Sposato responded by e-mail on June 19 that he “will not talk about financing of Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow. As I indicated before, we will be following the FEC disclosure requirements. I don’t believe we’re required to disclose our sources of funding under FEC, or IRS law.”
He may be right–but only because federal agencies aren’t enforcing the relevant statutes.
Shortly before the primary, I asked Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, whether it was legal for Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow not to disclose its donors. He explained (emphasis in original),
Any “person” making independent expenditures in excess of $250 in a calendar year must file a report with the FEC and must disclose “each person who made a contribution in excess of $200 to the person filing such statement which was made for the purpose of furthering an independent expenditure.” The FEC has interpreted this statutory reporting requirement as only requiring the spender to disclose a donor who has specifically designated their money to be used for independent expenditures—and the FEC has extended this requirement beyond independent expenditures to “electioneering communication.” A donor who give[s] money to generally support the recipient group need not be disclosed. It’s absurd—but it’s the law according to the FEC.
Any group that receives “contributions” or makes “expenditures” (both terms defined in campaign finance law to mean money raised/spent “for the purpose of influencing” a federal election) in excess of $1000 in a calendar [year] and that has the major purpose of influencing elections must register with the FEC and disclose their donors. But the FEC can’t agree on how to apply this test to non-profits. So the FEC isn’t enforcing the law. Instead, the FEC deadlocks and dismisses complaints on this issue. […]
The real problem here is the lack of transparency for voters. The U.S. Supreme Court—including the conservative Roberts Court—has repeatedly recognized the importance and constitutionality of disclosure. Americans have a right to know who’s spending money to influence their votes on election day. But the laws and the law enforcers aren’t getting the job done!
WILL WE HEAR FROM THIS GROUP AGAIN?
In all likelihood, Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow sprang up as a way to enable more spending on Mauro’s behalf by people who had already contributed the maximum amount to his Congressional campaign ($2,700 before a primary). What will it do now that Cindy Axne has won the Democratic nomination in IA-03?
Sposato disputes the idea that his group was designed to boost one candidate alone. He told me on June 1,
We are an in state organization who supports the development of progressive polices that improve the lives of Iowans. We have made expenditures in the 3rd Congressional Primary in the same way other social welfare groups have supported candidates in the same race. In the future we will continue to support candidates that align with progressive policies and our vision for a better Iowa.
He clarified later the same day, “our primary purpose is to advocate for progressive policy.”
As far as I can tell, Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow has engaged in no advocacy beyond sending pro-Mauro material to thousands of potential Democratic primary voters. The group’s website has no calls to action, no e-mail or telephone contact information, and no links to volunteer or receive updates. The page is mostly devoid of content, other than three bullet points echoing Mauro’s campaign themes (affordable health care, protecting Social Security and Medicare, defending progressive Democratic values).
The group has made no discernible effort to connect with Iowa Democrats through social media. Its Facebook page has published only two posts: a May 21 promise to fight attempts to privatize Medicare and Social Security, and a May 29 pledge to “stand up against the Republican tax plan” and “always fight for equal pay for equal work.” Those posts have no likes or shares. In fact, a month after its creation, the Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow Facebook page itself has zero likes, which is hard to believe.
Political activity cannot be the primary function of any social welfare group claiming 501(c)(4) status. I asked Ryan of Common Cause how much this organization would have to spend later this year on things other than electioneering to stay in compliance with federal tax law.
For tax law purposes, the relevant period of time is the organization’s fiscal year and, in order to be compliant with the tax law ‘primary activity’ requirement, a group that spends $50,000 promoting a candidate would need to spend at least $50,000.01 doing non-candidate-election work.
Iowans for a Progressive Tomorrow has already spent $49,431.88 on direct mail for Mauro, so the group will need to raise and spend a bit more than that on other forms of progressive advocacy by the end of their fiscal year.
Next question: would it be legal for Eddie Mauro himself to donate $50,000 to this group after the IA-03 primary, as long as they spend it on non-electioneering activities? According to Ryan, “Yes, it would be legal for him to donate $50,000 to the group after the primary for non-election activities. There are no restrictions in federal law on candidates donating funds to (c)(4)s to fund non-electoral activities.”
Bleeding Heartland will be on the lookout for signs this “nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing progressive policy through public education using new as well as traditional media” is living up to its stated mission.