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


By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — It’s kind of like Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun criticizing rival big leaguers for using performance-enhancing drugs.

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.

The liberal Center for Media and Democracy, which received at least $520,000 in so-called “dark money” over a recent two-year period, was a presenter Thursday at a journalism workshop designed to uncover the sources of dark money shaping Wisconsin’s political landscape.

But Nick Surgey, research director for the Madison-based organization, didn’t mention that fact during the seminar.

While discussing different methods of revealing the identities of anonymous dark money donors, Surgey only referred to conservative groups and individuals, like the Koch brothers, Freedom Partners, Wisconsin Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.

During a short break in the workshop, Surgey told Wisconsin Reporter the CMD hasn’t accepted any dark money because he says those dollars were never used to influence elections.

“It’s sort of a misunderstanding of what dark money is,” Surgey said, moments before asking that the conversation not be recorded.

The term, coined by the left, applies to any money involved in politics in which the identity of the donor isn’t disclosed. There is nothing innately illegal about it under campaign finance law.

Such funding is allowable under the First Amendment’s protections on anonymous speech. That’s in part why some left-leaning organizations would like to change the First Amendment.

But organizations like the CMD have made “dark money” the rallying cry of what they see as evil corporate interests, although labor unions and big-left spenders are engaged in the exact same practices.

The CMD, which bills itself as a progressive watchdog group focused on exposing corporate spin and government propaganda, has spent years pushing stories on left-leaning agendas, including anonymous right-wing donors and the “evils of conservatives” targeted in the latest John Doe investigation in Wisconsin.

The liberal organization received $160,000 from the Tides Foundation in 2011 for research, the same year the CMD and other agencies ramped up a recall effort against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who handily defeated Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

The CMD lists no donors on its tax returns, but its website identifies numerous financial backers without any financial data. The Schwab Charitable Fund, which gave CMD $260,000 in both 2011 and 2012, is nowhere to be found on that list.

When asked why the mainstream media and CMD tend to focus more on the right’s dark money than the left’s, Surgey directed all questions to Lisa Graves, executive director of CMD. Surgey said he was at the reporters workshop only to give information on tracking dark money and wasn’t prepared to discuss CMD’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.

She said Schwab is an investment firm that isn’t 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.

Like many nonprofits, Wisconsin Reporter’s parent, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, uses a donor-advised fund, as well. The Franklin Center doesn’t disclose its donors.

But Graves maintains it’s acceptable for liberals to participate in that practice because the left is morally superior in its motives.

“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.”

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 and 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, Federal Communications Commission study.

Representatives from those Wisconsin groups were more balanced Thursday when discussing examples of exposing anonymous dark money donors.

Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, also was highly critical of all congressional members — both Democrats and Republicans — for essentially 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.

Adam Tobias can be contacted at atobias@watchdog.org or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias