A still from an advertisement paid for by Pennsylvanians for Accountability.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and unions could spend as much as they wanted on political campaigns, so long as they didn’t coordinate their campaigns with candidates and political parties.
The ruling opened the campaign finance floodgates. A new type of political organization, called a Super PAC, raised unlimited amounts of money from wealthy people and organizations. These groups still had to report the donations to the Federal Election Commission.
Groups like Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and Priorities USA, formed by former aides to President Obama, used another strategy. They organized as non-profit, social welfare groups under the tax laws, enabling them to bypass FEC regulations.
Their contributors are unknown. However, social welfare nonprofits managed to spend $254 million in the 2012 federal elections.
“They’re not breaking the law,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
“The problem is the law.”
For democracy to work, he said, people need to know the source of campaign money so they can make up their own minds about the groups.
PFA registered in September as a nonprofit with the Pennsylvania Department of State as a “social welfare organization promoting accountability in state government.”
Groups that call for the election or defeat of a specific candidate must register as a political committee, and political committees must report donations and expenses. But by steering clear of words like “elect,” “defeat,” or “vote against,” social welfare groups are considered issue advocacy groups and do not have to register as political committees in Pennsylvania.
Nonprofits are not required to disclose their officers and directors in the state.
“They don’t have to give us very much information,” said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Lynsey Kryzwick, vice president for national issue advocacy at BerlinRosen, verified that PFA has also applied for tax-exempt status under federal tax laws.
If its IRS application is approved, that will become public record and PFA will have to file annual reports that show its officers and expenses, but not its donors.
The IRS said the approval process takes about a year.
A box within a box
PFA listed its address at 801 N. Negley Ave., #5, in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood. That’s the same address as the state office of America Votes, a national organization “established to coordinate and promote progressive issues,” according to its mission statement.
America Votes also is a “social welfare” nonprofit, but unlike Pennsylvanians for Accountability, it identifies its leadership, staff and partners.
The office of America Votes is in a former church run by the Union Project, a community group that offers classes, rents space for events and leases offices.
“I’ve never heard of this group,” Jeffrey Dorsey, executive director of the Union Project, said about Pennsylvanians for Accountability. “If they listed our address, I’m really confused.”
The location gets more confusing on FCC records, which list a box number at 1151 Freeport Road, O’Hara. That’s a United Parcel Service store in the Fox Chapel Plaza.
Pennsylvania requires corporations and nonprofits to have a physical address “beyond a post office box,” Ruman said. And when an address changes, their registration must be amended.
PFA has not amended its registration.
“Whether they are actually there,” Ruman said, “we can’t look into.”
That’s because the Pennsylvania Department of State has no investigative or enforcement power.
The advocacy group even disguises its online address. Internet domain registrations typically show an address, telephone number and contact. PFA’s internet domain shows its contact information as a Los Angeles company that boasts that it “masks your email from the outside world!”
“There are always people trying to game the system,” said Kauffman of Common Cause. “We think society runs better when people follow the rules instead of trying to beat the rules.”
Transparency works better than secrecy, he said.
The public gains confidence in your activities. “You have greater credibility.”
A ‘better life in Pa.’
The state registration does reveal four names.
Dan Ford is named as the person at the America Votes address to whom documents should be returned. FCC records identify him as campaign director of the group. Ford, of Harrisburg, has worked as a union organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a trainer and recruiter for Service Employees International Union, and a political campaign manager.
When reached by telephone, Ford said he would talk later, but did not respond to several voice mail messages.
Linda J. Cook of Brookhaven, near Harrisburg, and Kevin C. Kantz of Edinboro are listed as incorporators. They are retired teachers who have been active in the Pennsylvania State Education Association. They did not respond to telephone messages requesting comment.
The only person formally connected to the group who would talk with PublicSource was Koehler, 66, the Pittsburgh incorporator who doesn’t know who runs the organization. She lives in Bloomfield near UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she worked in various positions when it was St. Francis Medical Center.
Koehler said she was recruited by Mary Shull, the state director of America Votes, whom she knew from voting rights events. Shull did not respond to several telephone messages.
Koehler said that she was told that if anyone approached her about PFA she was to refer him to Kryzwick, PFA’s spokeswoman and an employee of BerlinRosen.
Kryzwick declined to identify the group’s leadership or funding.
Koehler got involved in political causes after her brother, Billy, died in 2009 from heart failure. He had lost his job as an electronics technician and no longer had health care insurance.
She organized a postcard campaign urging politicians to reform healthcare with help from the Service Employees International Union. Just before Christmas 2009, she delivered about 1,000 postcards to elected officials in Washington.
As for Pennsylvanians for Accountability, “The only thing I know, they told me they’re fighting for rights so people can have a better life in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I said you can have my name and do what it takes to make Pennsylvania better.”
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