Lee Fang | The Nation

Lee Fang

Lee Fang

Investigating the intersection of politics, lobbying and public policy at RepublicReport.org.

Loophole Allows Saudi Arabian Businesses to Spend Freely in Our Election

Some Republican bloggers have circulated what seems to be a complete dud of a story about foreigners donating discretely to the Obama campaign using credit cards. Yesterday, Josh Israel demolished what was left of the pseudo-scandal. There’s actually a more significant loophole that should give anyone pause.

Foreign corporations can in fact influence American democracy in pernicious ways. For instance, how can Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries keep us dependent on fossil fuels? Well, thanks in part to the Citizens United decision, a new loophole allows foreign corporations to spend unlimited, undisclosed amounts on American elections.

Saudi-funded groups have run ads against Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat in Missouri, as well as in support of Tommy Thompson, a Republican in Wisconsin. But in both cases, they’ve been able to conceal the spending behind a wall of secrecy, and under the banner of groups with “American” in the name.

Super PACs have to disclose their donors, so for a foreign corporation to spend big without ever revealing itself, a more practical vehicle to influence an election is something called a trade association, which can now operate as a PAC but without revealing a cent of its funding.

A typical trade association consists of many businesses that pay an annual fee depending on its size. Companies can also pitch in extra funds to their respective trade association at any time, as health insurance companies secretly did with an $86 million transfer to the US Chamber of Commerce in 2009 for ads against health reform. As the company’s representative, a trade association engages in everything from lobbying to promotional campaigns to efforts to develop common industry standards.

The largest trade associations have been around for nearly a century, and in the last few decades, many have taken an international scope. For instance, the American Petroleum Institute, which began in 1919 as a trade group for domestic oil companies, is now led in part by a Saudi government lobbyist and has offices in Singapore, Beijing and Dubai. ExxonMobil and Chevron are reportedly among the highest dues-paying members of API, but so is Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company. (The American Petroleum Institute, as Bloomberg has reported, now transfers money to attack ad groups like the 60 Plus Association.)

Here’s the rub. Citizens United allows trade associations, for the first time, to dip into their general treasuries—made up in many cases of both foreign and domestic money from businesses—and spend unlimited amounts on American elections. Before the Supreme Court began taking an axe to campaign finance, if a trade association wanted to spend on a federal election, it had to spin off a regulated and disclosed political action committee. Though foreigners can’t manage a PAC, they are more than welcome to manage major trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute.

Here’s how it plays out this year.

Chemical companies do not want Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic Senate candidate in Wisconsin, to win. In addition to voting to move our energy system towards a clean economy and away from petrochemicals, she’s a strong advocate for regulating carcinogens in household products, like cosmetics. But instead of beating her with an ordinary PAC or a campaign contribution to her opponent, the trade association for the chemical industry has chosen to take advantage of the Citizens United loophole to use undisclosed general treasury funds against Baldwin.

The American Chemistry Council made one of the biggest media buys in the Senate race in August by purchasing $648,600 worth of ads supporting Baldwin’s opponent, former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. Here’s the ad:

The American Chemistry Council used its 501(c)(6) fund rather than its PAC, so it does not have to disclose where it got that money. The council has also used its 501(c)(6) to air ads in support of Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and other pro-chemical industry politicians of both parties.

Where does the Chemistry Council’s general treasury, otherwise known as its 501(c)(6), receive its funds? Well, according to its website, the largest foreign chemical companies in the world—Saudi Arabia’s state-owned SABIC, the Chinese-owned Sinopec corporation and Japan’s Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation—are dues-paying members, alongside American giants like DuPont and Dow Chemical.

The American Petroleum Institute also used its foreign-funded 501(c)(6) to air its own ads against senators like McCaskill.

In some rare cases, subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations have decided to skip the trade association route and spend disclosed dollars on US elections. Recently, OdysseyRe, a subsidiary of a Canadian financial services company, gave $1 million to the pro-Romney Super PAC. As I reported earlier this year, 7-Eleven Corporation, which is owned by a Japanese holding company, gave to a Super PAC supporting Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) during his primary.

When the next Congress is gaveled in this January, a good number of lawmakers will owe their seats to groups financed in part by foreign-owned corporations. In the case of the American Chemistry Council and American Petroleum Institute, two Saudi-funded pro-oil lobbies active in the election, that could have wide ranging ramifications for our energy security.

For more on the plutocratic consequences of Citizens United, read Lee Fang on who's running the pro-Romney Super PACs.

Corporate Lobbyists Run Almost Every Pro-Romney Super PAC

In politics, like in war, to the victor go the spoils.

After the election, top campaign operatives will spin through the revolving door to quickly cash in on their access to powerful politicians. The DCI Group, a DC lobbying firm involved in several aggressive attack ad efforts against John Kerry in 2004, scored significant lobbying gigs during the Bush administration. As I’ve detailed, President Obama’s communications director went on to work at a lobbying/consulting firm that pressured his administration on behalf of the deceptive for-profit college industry.

Though the problem exists on both sides, one must marvel at the number of corporate lobbyists leading efforts to defeat President Obama. With the cottage industry that is the world of Republican Super PACs and 501(c) groups, a new class of consultants will be eager to cash in on the spoils of a Mitt Romney presidency.

I took a closer look at the biggest outside spending groups filling the airwaves with pro-Romney or anti-Obama advertisements, and found a pretty familiar trend:

Crossroads GPS/American Crossroads (Spent at least $72 Million on ads):

Steven DuffieldSteven Law is president of Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, the outside spending groups founded by Karl Rove. Law came to Rove from the US Chamber of Commerce, where he worked as a lawyer on the Chamber’s lobbying team. Law’s name appears on disclosures showing he played a role on the Chamber’s efforts to bail out the big banks, fight caps on bonuses to AIG and push for corporate tax cuts.

American Crossroads chairman Mike Duncan hasn’t waited until the election to join a lobbying group. A few weeks ago, he became chief lobbyist to an association that advocates on federal policy for coal companies.

Steven Duffield, the policy director of Crossroads GPS, also runs his own lobbying firm called Endgame Strategies. Duffield once advertised his ability to manipulate Senate rules on behalf of his corporate clients. A now-deleted line from his website touted his ability to find “backbench Senate Republicans” who can “exercise their prerogatives to delay or obstruct”—i.e., filibuster—legislation on behalf of Duffield’s clients.  

Americans for Prosperity (Spending at least $125 million on ads and field):

Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips, a close political adviser to David Koch, is a former grassroots lobbyist at the firm Century Strategies. Phillips, who still owns his own firm called New Dominion Strategies, specializes in manipulating the conservative grassroots into supporting his corporate clients’ interests. At Century Strategies, Phillips’ firm mobilized “pro-family groups” to push energy deregulation on behalf of Enron, and for a local tycoon organized Christian activists to oppose anti-sweatshop legislation for the Marianas Islands by claiming it would prevent workers from learning the “teachings of Jesus Christ.” He now leads opposition to clean energy programs and Democratic Party candidates on behalf of the Koch brothers.

Tracy Henke, Americans for Prosperity’s COO and executive vice president, comes to the group from a career of Republican campaigns and lobbying gigs. She’s represented firms like Oracle Corporation and CEELOX, a biometrics security company.

Alan Cobb, Americans for Prosperity’s vice president for state affairs, is a former lobbyist for Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned in part by AFP’s billionaire benefactor, David Koch.

Restore Our Future (Spent at least $87 million on ads):

After leading a Republican outside money group in 2010, Carl Forti founded the pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future and continues to direct its spending efforts. Forti’s consulting firm, the Alexandria-based Black Rock Group, says it helps private sector firms accomplish policy goals through “more than lobbying” that influences “the grassroots to grasstops and up the legislative chain.”

Charles Spies, the treasurer for Restore Our Future, is an attorney with Clark Hill, a law/lobbying firm. Clark Hill currently represents Wynn Resorts, Compuware Corp., and other corporate clients.

Republican Jewish Coalition (Spent at least $3.7 million on ads):

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s board has many lobbyists: RJC board member Bradley Wine* previously lobbied for Dickstein Shapiro and now works in the government relations practice of law/lobbying firm Morrison & Foerster; RJC board member Wayne Berman, consistently ranked as one of K Street’s top “hired guns,” is now an in-house lobbyist for the Blackstone Group, a large private equity firm; RJC board member Norm Coleman is a former US senator from Minnesota and current lobbyist with Hogan Lovells; and Mark Isakowitz, president of the top-grossing lobbying firm Fierce, Isakowitz, & Balock, who once threatened lawmakers with $4 million in negative advertising if they didn’t vote his way.

FreedomWorks (Spent more than $9.7 million on ads and field):

Dick Armey, a former Republican congressman who left Congress to work as a corporate lobbyist at the firm DLA Piper, leads FreedomWorks. After being exposed for his pushing the Tea Party to support many of the same goals as his clients, Armey left DLA Piper in 2009.

FreedomWorks board member C. Boyden Gray is a longtime DC lobbyist whose firm Grey and Shmitz represents the US Chamber of Commerce in fighting financial regulations.

Americans for Job Security (Spent at least $8.8 million on ads):

Michael DeMaura runs Americans for Job Security, a pay-to-play front for corporate money in elections for many years. Public Citizen and other watchdog groups have detailed the ways DeMaura and his cohorts have used his group to launder corporate dollars into elections. As The New York Times reported, an Alaskan mine interest gave $2 million to Americans for Job Security in exchange for developing a campaign in support of a ballot initiative that would help approve the mine. 

Update: This post originally claimed that Bradley Wine works for Dickstein Shapiro. He left that firm earlier this year to join a different lobbying firm, Morrison & Foerster. 

Coal Company CEO Dreams of Romney as President, Jim Inhofe as Head of EPA

“And by the way, I like coal,” remarked Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate last Wednesday night. And if any industry likes Romney back, coal ranks up there along with finance and oil.

Coal companies provide a product that causes mercury poisoning, climate change and other environmental hazards. The increasingly profitable way of extracting it, mountaintop removal, the process by which a mountain is blown up and the coal beneath it is gathered with heavy cranes and machinery, is being blamed for poisoning waterways throughout Appalachia.

As regulators move slowly towards regulating coal, the industry is reacting with a political push that markedly favors Romney, who has attacked Obama’s EPA regulations and promises a more coal company-friendly administration.

“I had a dream the other day that Mitt Romney won the election and appointed Jim Inhofe as Administrator of the EPA,” said Peter Socha, the CEO of the James River Coal Company, during a conference call for investors this year. Inhofe is the senator from Oklahoma famous for his steadfast denial of climate science, calling any notion that burning fossil fuels contributes to the greenhouse gas effect “a hoax.” Listen here:

Many in his industry share the dreams of Socha, whose coal company has sought approval for mountaintop removal mining and has been fined as recently as this year for damaging streams and rivers.

Last week, The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis reported that Murray Coal, the company caught compelling its workers to attend a Romney rally earlier this year without pay, has leaned on its white collar employees to contribute heavily to the company political action committee. The pressure may violate campaign finance laws, but it is only one example of how the industry is attempting to influence the election this year.

Murray is one of 34 coal-related companies financing an aggressive lobbying campaign called the “American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.” The group financed tens of millions in pro-coal political ads, paid for organizers to show up at presidential campaign events spreading a pro-coal message, and has attempted some guerilla tactics to insert itself into both political parties. Though the ads demand that the voters “stand up for coal in this election,” you won’t find any disclosures with the Federal Election Commission because ACCCE’s ads do not mention candidate names, the trigger that requires registration.

King Coal’s many tools for affecting the debate – from coercing workers, to campaign contributions and advertising – are enhanced by the campaign geography. Swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are heavily reliant on coal industry jobs and coal as a power source. This gives the coal industry leverage to lean on both candidates to pander to their narrow interests.

Indeed, four years ago, ACCCE’s paid organizers managed to deliver several pro-coal questions to then-candidate Obama, who eventually told a town hall audience that he proudly supports the idea of “clean coal,” a trumped up term invented by industry but with no proven technology. There is nothing clean about burning coal, and there is way to safely sequester coal emissions underground, as coal companies claim. Nevertheless, Obama provided a great deal of money for clean coal efforts as part of his stimulus measure.

The fact that coal companies were able to influence Obama in such a way is a grim reminder that an industry that provides a deadly, outdated product can win if it invests enough resources in the political system.

New Mexico Congressman Agrees With Voter Suppression Tactics

This morning, ProgressNow New Mexico, a left-leaning advocacy organization, released a video showing the a local Republican County party in New Mexico instructing its poll watchers to engage in what could be illegal voter suppression.

The poll watchers are told to request identification from voters, even though the law in New Mexico does not require voter ID. There are other troubling parts of the video and poll watcher instruction manual, including a call for poll watchers to instruct some voters to vote by provisional ballot even if they are registered correctly in their precinct. Poll watchers are told to deceive Spanish-speaking voters by telling them ballots that interpreters are not available, when in fact New Mexico law provides for language assistance for minorities and Spanish-language ballots.

At CPAC Colorado, a conservative conference today in Denver, I asked Congressman Steve Pearce, a Republican lawmaker who represents New Mexico, about the brewing controversy. 

“We’re simply saying that we’re going to start, we’re going to take it back it into our hands,” said Pearce. “We should check for ID since you have to show an ID to do anything in America.”

He did, however, admit that doing so would be against the law. “It’s against New Mexico law to check for ID,” the congressman conceded.

Wouldn’t having scores of Republican poll watchers requesting voter ID even though there’s no legal requirement for an ID cause confusion? “What do you think these poll watchers should do if someone refuses to show identification?” I asked.

“I just think we need to be asking the question,” replied Pearce. “I don’t think New Mexicans know how many people vote illegally.

I pressed him again. Wouldn’t it cause confusion with poll watchers telling people they need an ID to vote even though they don’t?

“It all comes down to judges and all that stuff—that’s sort of out of my area,” said Pearce.

Despite Pearce’s claim of widespread voter fraud in his state, New Mexico’s secretary of state, a Republican, released a report last year showing scant evidence of any instances where people acted on intent to commit fraud.

UPDATE: The state New Mexico GOP's communications director, Jamie Dickerman, contacted the Nation to clarify that this poll watcher training was not authorized by the state party and only involved leaders of the Sandoval County Republican Party. "The State Party is looking into the matter and does not condone misinformation. We will work with the Sandoval County Party to correct the problem and make sure that we have fair elections this November." A spokesman for Congressman Pearce's office says he had not seen the video when he spoke to the Nation, and now condemns it. 


Check out our Voting Rights Watch 2012 blog for more on the GOP's voter suppression efforts.

In Search of Votes, Billionaire-Backed Anti-Obama Groups Distribute Expensive Gifts

A woman with the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity loads gas, paid for in part by her group, for a vehicle in Flint, Michigan. AFP’s anti-Obama bus is in the background. Image via Flickr.

As the election approaches, advocacy groups that have saturated the airwaves in advertising are now turning to gifts to persuade voters.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the nonprofit financed by David Koch and other wealthy Republican businessmen, has spent some $31 million on anti-Obama ads since April. The group recently opened 98 Get-Out-the-Vote offices, hired some 200 field staffers and has been distributing its state-of-the-art voter-targeting technology on Samsung tablet computers to its volunteers. Now AFP is hoping to win hearts and minds with gifts of free gas.

AFP is hosting events at gas stations across the country to provide gasoline to motorists for the price of $1.84 per gallon. The group is paying for up to fifteen gallons for 100–150 drivers at each station, telling them that the $1.84 price symbolizes the price per a gallon before Obama took office in 2009.

A CBS news affiliate in Iowa reports that at least one driver, Louis Lumpkin, said that the free gas would make a difference on his vote for president. Watch below:

Here’s another local news report, this one even more sympathetic. “It’s part of the gas can Million Man march put on by…Americans for Prosperity!” says Reno news network KOLO 8.

AFP is spending about $4,000 giving away gas at every stop, and has been to stations throughout Nevada, Iowa and Michigan. Along the way, they’re earning free, largely uncritical airtime for their message and maybe some votes in swing states.

The Koch’s political operatives are hoping drivers forget the fact prices peaked over $4 under Bush, that the prices in January 2009 were artificially low because of the financial crisis, and that there’s little a president can do to affect oil prices. There’s also the hypocrisy problem. Koch Industries, the company that invented the oil derivative, considers itself one of the world’s biggest players, up there with Goldman Sachs, engaged in the type of commodity speculation that many experts believe is a key driver in rising gas prices.

AFP is also providing free barbeque to at its anti-Obama rallies as well as gift cards to its phone bankers, which in the past have been as high as $200 each for the most productive volunteers.

AFP’s giveaways seem to be increasing at a time when other related groups are adding more incentives for people to volunteer against Obama. Last Thursday, the Republican Jewish Coalition, another undisclosed group associated with a small set of wealthy patrons, including Mel Sembler and Sheldon Adelson, began giving away iPads to its most active volunteers. The Huffington Post reported on the RJC’s efforts to “woo” volunteers:

Put in at least 20 hours at an official RJC phone bank in California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York or here in Washington and receive a $100 American Express gift card. Up that to 30 hours and one gets an older model iPad 2 (worth about $200). And to volunteers who dial up Jewish voters for 50 hours or more, the RJC will give a new 32GB iPad 3, worth $599. Less time gets a lesser tablet, with 40 hours on the phone equaling a 16GB iPad 3 ($499).

Of course, some pro-Obama groups are providing minor gifts to their supporters as well. As far I know, it’s been limited to free pizza, or in one case, a $5 gift card for an evening of phone banking.

The enthusiasm gap is wide on both sides. Democrats are having a tough time generating volunteers, and Republicans do not have the type of Tea Party excitement that existed two years ago in the midterm elections.

For more on the right’s expensive ground game, read Lee Fang’s coverage of the Romney campaign and Strategic Allied Consulting

GOP Fires Controversial Voter Suppression Operative, but Is He Still Playing Dirty Tricks In California?

On Wednesday, I reported a story by connecting some of the dots between the growing voter registration form scandal in Florida to some great blogging by Greg Flynn of BlueNC.

It turns out we were right. Nathan Sproul, the infamous voter suppression operative from 2004, accused of running an operation in several states that destroyed voter registration forms signed by Democrats, had been secretly paid by Republicans this year on another multimillion-dollar contract for voter registration in swing states.

Sproul—who managed an $8 million voter outreach program for Republicans in 2004—is accused of having his workers destroy voter registration forms turned in by Democrats in Nevada and Oregon that year. Similar tactics were reported in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and West Virginia. They’re also accused of other hijinx, from gathering signatures to place Ralph Nader on the ballot to deceiving people in voter registration drives at Walmart. CBS News has reported on faxes they received showing Sproul’s firm misrepresenting themselves as the left-leaning America Votes! group.

He’s now in hot water because his firm was caught turning in faked voter registration forms in Palm Beach County and nine other counties in Florida.

Within a day of The Nation’s reporting the story, officials with the national Republican Party cut ties with Sproul, whose firm has already received $3.1 million for work in Virginia, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Colorado. Although the payments were made by state party committees, its now clear that the Romney campaign and the national GOP coordinated the effort.

But here’s confirmation of another wrinkle in the story—the Los Angeles Times reports that Republicans were so concerned with the many scandals surrounding Sproul and his previous work, they indeed asked him to set up a shell corporation to hide the payments. Here’s what Matea Gold and her colleagues reported today: “But his reputation is such that when Sproul was tapped by the RNC to do field work this year, officials requested that he set up a new firm to avoid being publicly linked to the past allegations.” The shell is called “Strategic Allied Consulting,” but Sproul’s real firm carries the name “Sproul and Associates” and “Lincoln Strategy Group.”

It appears that the Republican Party of California might have its own deal with Sproul, and is also attempting to hide it from the public.

As I noted in an update to my post on Wednesday, the California Republican Party has made $430,840 in payments to “Grassroots Outreach, LLC” this cycle for voter registration and petition gathering.

Is this another Sproul shell group? And are they up to the same tactics as before? Lance Williams at California Watch reports that a recent complaint in Riverside County details a number of allegations that someone affiliated with the GOP is deceiving voters to re-register them as Republicans and offering free cigarettes for signatures. They’re reportedly targeting minorities:

One voter complained that his registration was changed to Republican after he signed what he thought was a petition to legalize marijuana. Another said he was told he was signing a petition to lower the price of gasoline, according to the affidavits.

Others said they were offered free cigarettes or a “job at the polls” if they signed some paperwork. Also among the Democrats who said they were involuntarily re-registered as Republicans: two aides to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Roth, a Democrat locked in a tight race with Republican Assemblyman Jeff Miller for a state Senate seat.

Many of the complainants were Latino or African American. [Emphasis added.]

According to this disclosure, Grassroots Outreach shares the same address as Sproul’s office in Tempe, Arizona. Craigslist job postings in California use identical language as Sproul’s shell company, Strategic Allied Consulting.

I’ve left another message with Sproul’s consulting firm in Tempe, Arizona, and will post an update.

UPDATE: A representative for Sproul writes in to clarify that his payments were for both signature gathering and voter registration. This post has been updated to reflect that. He also adds that Sproul is not active in Riverside County: "Mr. Sproul and [sic] has companies have not worked in Riverside County for sometimes, and certainly not this election cycle."

GOP Quietly Hires Firm Tied to Voter Fraud Scandal for Work in Battleground States

The Palm Beach Post report last night that a Florida Republican Party contractor turned in at least 106 “questionable” registration firms, with “similar signatures” and wrong addresses, doesn’t seem like a national news story. But it has unwoven a somewhat concealed effort by Republicans in several states to deploy a firm with an ugly history of allegedly destroying Democratic voter registration forms and other acts of fraud.

The contractor in Florida is called Strategic Allied Consulting, a business entity created a few months ago and registered online by a former Arizona Republican Party director named Nathan Sproul.

Sproul, a consultant based in Tempe, is infamous for accusations that his firms have committed fraud by tampering with Democratic voter registration forms and suppressing votes. Sproul was hired by the Romney campaign for a period of five months that began last November and ended in March. But now there’s evidence that the payments continued, only to a different name.

As Greg Flynn of BlueNC pointed out earlier this month, Strategic Allied Consulting recently put up a proxy to hide the fact that its website was registered by Sproul; but not before Flynn took a screen shot. Flynn notes that the firm has been aggressively hiring in Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. He flagged two large payments to the firm from GOP committees in Florida and North Carolina.

Screen shot of Craiglist posting tied to Strategic Allied Consulting

I found a few more payments, like this one from the Colorado Republican Committee: $140,000 to the Sproul-connected firm on July 6, 2012. (UPDATE: I also found the California Republican Party making $430,840 in payments to "Grassroots Outreach, LLC" this cycle for voter registration and petition gathering. According to this disclosure, Grassroots Outreach shares the same address as Sproul's office in Tempe, Arizona. Craigslist job postings in California and Colorado use identical language as Strategic Alled Consulting's listings in North Carolina.)

Brad Friedman has put up a history of Sproul’s companies, and their work for Republican interests. They range from antics like gathering signatures to put Nader on the ballot and being banned from Walmart for partisan voting drives to more serious offenses, like allegedly destroying Democratic registration forms in several states while on the payroll of the RNC.

I called Sproul’s firm in Arizona to ask about its connection to Strategic Allied Consulting. “I am not at liberty to discuss that,” the reception answered bluntly, before transferring me to another employee who gave a similarly coy response. I e-mailed my questions over, and will post a response if they send it. It’s also worth noting Sproul hid his tracks in 2008.

For the 2008 campaign cycle, Sproul changed his company’s name from Sproul & Associates (an earlier iteration was called Voter Outreach of America) to “Lincoln Strategy Group,” and McCain’s campaign used a California affiliate to hire him.

It's possible that Romney, like McCain, wanted to utilize Sproul without becoming publicly associated with him. The type of fraud Sproul has been accused of is fairly breathtaking, and seems to dwarf the trumped-up charges by Republicans that Democrats have engaged in widespread voter fraud (claims that have been widely debunked).

In 2004, a voter registration worker in Nevada hired by Sproul’s firm told reporters that he had witnessed his surpervisors chucking registration forms signed by Democrats. “They were thrown away in the trash,” he claimed. Sproul’s canvassers in Oregon confessed to doing the same thing, and other reports emerged across several swing states. In Minnesota, workers said they were actually fired for bringing in registration forms signed by Democrats. CBS News obtained faxes showing that Sproul's firm had even impersonated the left-leaning America Votes! to organize voter registration drives at libraries.

One of the mysteries with Sproul that I had wondered about while covering this story in the past is why there had never been a serious investigation.

As I pointed out in a blog post earlier this year, Sproul's alleged activities were uniquely worrisome. “So the difference between ACORN and Sproul is that ACORN doesn’t throw away or change registration documents after they have been filled out,” remarked Chris Cannon, a Republican lawmaker from Utah, who later lost his seat because of a right-wing primary challenge, during a congressional hearing on voter suppression. Indeed, many voter registration groups (including ACORN) have paid per-registration form turned in, thus incentivizing fake signatures—i.e., Mickey Mouse registering to vote. But this type of thing doesn't actually result in fraudulent votes because Mickey Mouse doesn’t show up at the polls and try to cast a ballot. Destroying registration forms, on the other hand, means citizens who believed they were registered show up and could have been denied their vote.

Sam Stein reported that in 2004, Senators Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy had demanded an investigation in light of the many reports of Sproul’s firm destroying registration forms. But the Department of Justice sat on its hands. “Sproul & Associates clearly merited a full investigation by the Justice Department; and yet the DoJ did nothing,” said New York University law professor Mark Miller at the Cannon hearing.

Perhaps Sproul’s ties to prominent Republicans helped him escape an investigation.

As Congress and ethics experts loudly called for investigations into Sproul’s voter suppression, the Bush administration literally welcomed Sproul and his wife into the White House for a Christmas party in 2006. The administration instead chose prosecute groups associated with registering low-income and poor Americans to vote.

UPDATE: Around 2:30 pm EST on Thursday, WRAL News in North Carolina reports that the NC GOP is dropping its contract with Strategic Allied Consulting. Last night, the Florida Republican Party said it would be ending its contract with the firm as well. What about the Colorado Republican Party, the California Republicans Party, and what appears to be GOP contracts in Virginia and Nevada? 

UPDATE: NBC News is reporting that the national Republican Party is cutting ties with Strategic Allied Partners. They've also confirmed that the company is run by Nathan Sproul. Sproul was hired for a multimillion dollar contract to recruit 4,000-5,000 people to help register Republican voters in swing states (at $12-$16/hr, according to the Craigslist posts we reported). Given the size of this contract, the abrupt way that the party dropped Sproul might raise some eyebrows. Maybe they were worried the Palm Beach incident wasn't isolated? 

For more on the GOP's election strategy, check out Lee Fang's latest on the Koch brothers.

Koch Group Kicks Off Massive Voter Mobilization Effort

It’s “National Prosperity Action Day.” Tea Partiers, Republican volunteers and conservative activists are being summoned by Americans for Prosperity—the group founded and financed by several large corporations, and led by the billionaire Koch brothers—to begin mobilizing to defeat President Obama and Congressional Democrats.

They’re gathering in newly set up offices in critical swing states. Some of the locations have a tinge of irony for a supposedly grassroots, ordinary citizens-led organization: In Saddlebrook, Arizona, they’ll be meeting in a country club; in Clearwater, Florida, the local AFP field director rented space from an outsourcing company called TAC Worldwide. But the work the AFP machine is doing is no laughing matter for liberals. The Koch network has a sophisticated targeting system, as well as an army of experienced Republican campaign hands to guide the effort. The volunteers even receive Samsung Galaxy tablets to quickly log information and move on to the next potential Romney voter.

It’s the beginning of an extremely well-planned get-out-the-vote effort that duplicates what an entire national party would attempt. And it’s been four years in the making.

In 2009, the Koch network created a model called the Wisconsin Prosperity Project to move the state to the far right. After witnessing the Democrats’ stunning 2008 ground game, the operatives in Wisconsin were determined to out-organize liberals. They hired Tea Party organizers, invested heavily in front groups (like the MacIver Center), ran constant advertising and coordinated with employers to hold propaganda meetings with workers. Tea Party bus tours in the state, fully financed by AFP, were “designed” to help elect Republicans.

And in 2010, Wisconsin turned harder to the right than almost any other state in the nation during the midterm elections. At least from the Koch perspective, the investments worked. (The Koch theory of change was also reinforced by the savvy Scott Walker recall campaign, in which Koch operatives bused seventy-five canvassers to the state to out-perform the unions.)

Koch’s unique, outside-the-GOP voter mobilizing system is called Themis, named after the Greek god of divine order. It carries a similar name to the Themis project by the US Chamber of Commerce’s partners exposed for planning to hack and sabatoge liberals and some union groups, but it is not related.

Rather, Themis is a master database built with information purchased by the Koch brothers, as well as survey information gathered through its network of paid organizers. During the Republican primaries, as Mother Jones reported, AFP paid Florida residents to survey Republican activists as they voted for the various candidates. Tim Phillips, the Koch political deputy, explained Themis this way to USA Today’s Fredreka Schouten: “Our geo-targeting looks at everything from voting data to Census data to consumer-purchasing information.” Phillips also said, “We know their magazine subscriptions. In some cases, we know the websites they prefer to surf.”

Koch is now financing more than 200 organizers and paid political staff in thirty-one states. Its likely much of the money Koch now donates to the NRA and groups like the Faith and Freedom Coalition (run by Tim Phillip’s longtime business partner, Ralph Reed), will also be spent on organizers on the ground. Using the Wisconsin model, Koch hopes to partner with local conservative groups to build a rapid mobilization system that can compete on Election Day, in every critical state.

Too much attention is given to the television ads. The Koch network, which is actively training Tea Partiers, via a partnership with True the Vote, to harass and intimidate voters, may tip the scales in this election. And you won’t see their work on television, or through FEC disclosures (they refuse to register their grassroots electioneering as independent expenditures). Like Wisconsin, liberals might see the ground shifting beneath them, and wonder what happened.

For more on the influence of money in politics, check out The Nation's special issue on "The One-Percent Court."

GOP Mogul Behind Drug Rehab 'Torture' Centers Is Bankrolling Opposition to Pot Legalization in Colorado

Marijuana legalization would harm kids, says Smart Colorado, a group advertising stock images of children along with messages asking for voters to reject Amendment 64, a ballot initiative this year to legalize and tax pot.

Smart Colorado, led former Republican senate candidate Ken Buck and a team of Republican lobbyists and campaign operatives, hopes to drive down the popularity of Amendment 64 before Election Day. The supposedly family-friendly group, however, relies heavily on funds from a pair of controversial Republican fundraisers who once led a drug rehab center shut down over wide-ranging child abuse scandals.

Save Our Society from Drugs, a Florida-based nonprofit founded by Mel and Betty Sembler, has given Smart Colorado contributions totaling $151,497 through September, according to The Nation’s review of state finance disclosures. That’s 95 percent of the money raised by the group so far.

The Semblers have been waging a war on marijuana for decades.

Before they led Save Our Society from Drugs, and its sister nonprofit, the Drug Free America Foundation, the Semblers were at the helm of STRAIGHT, Inc., which operated drug abuse treatment centers, mostly for teenagers, from 1976 through 1993.

Former clients of the rehab center recount episodes of brutal beatings, rape and systematic psychological abuse.

At one facility in Yorba Linda, California, state investigators found that STRAIGHT Inc. subjected children to “unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse…and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.” Samantha Monroe, who was placed into a STRAIGHT Inc clinic in Tampa at age 13, says she was locked in a room, and forced to wear a clothes stained with urine, feces and menstrual blood—a punishment her counselors called “humble pants.”

Richard Bradbury, a former STRAIGHT patient and counselor-turned-whistleblower, told the St. Petersburg Times that Monroe’s experiences weren’t unique. “It was pure child abuse,” Bradbury told reporters. “Torture.”

In 1988, Fred Collins, an 18-year-old college student, paid a visit to his brother, who was in treatment for drug abuse, at an Orlando STRAIGHT Inc. clinic. Counselors accused Collins of being high on marijuana because his eyes were red, and held him against his will for months. The abduction, strip-searches and other abuses ended when Collins managed to escape. He was one of many to win judgments against the chain of drug rehab clinics before it was forced to close after investigations and lawsuits began to mount in several states.

Though the STRAIGHT drug rehab clinic no longer exist, the Sembler network of anti-drug nonprofits have proliferated, in part because of the family’s extensive political connections. Mel, who served as a major fundraiser for George H.W., Jeb and George W. Bush, was appointed as the Ambassador to Italy in 2001. Betty Sembler, awarded “honorary agent status by the DEA,” has led various anti-drug commissions and task forces on the state and federal level.

Three years after STRAIGHT shut down, the Semblers changed its name to the Drug Free America Foundation, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Drug Free America Foundation, a nonprofit that shares resources, an office and staff with the Save Our Society group financing the Amendment 64 opposition in Colorado, has a contract with the federal government to help small businesses develop their own drug-testing programs for employees. In 2010, taxpayers forked over $250,000 to a Sembler group to oversee a drug-free workplace program for the Small Business Administration. It also helps produce anti-marijuana literature and promotional campaigns.

Mel Sembler, who made his fortune in real estate, says his opposition to marijuana use influenced his move to the GOP. He switched party affiliation in 1979, when he claims he found out “[President Jimmy] Carter was doing all this pot smoking and stuff in the White House.”

Since then, he’s been a proud Republican. Explaining his early support for Mitt Romney (he’s now a leader of Romney’s Florida fundraising team), Sembler says he accompanied then-Governor Romney to Israel during his first official visit and trusts the candidate’s business acumen. Viveca Novak, of OpenSecrets.org, noted that Sembler was spotted on a Romney bundler yacht during the Republican convention last month.

Sembler hasn’t renounced his sordid legacy with the STRAIGHT clinics. An online biography of Mel Sember posted by his nonprofit proudly touts his role in founding the scandal-plagued rehab centers. The biography cheerfully claims, that during “its 17 years of existence, STRAIGHT successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program.” There is no mention of the child abuse scandals that led to its downfall.

There’s little time to worry about the past. He’s waging two battles now: one in Colorado, and another to evict a former Choom Gang member from the White House.

Ex–Blue Dogs, Defeated by Secret Money, Mount Their Own K Street Front

Three years ago, Baron Hill, a lawmaker from Indiana and a leader of the Blue Dog caucus of conservative House Democrats, went out on a limb. He appeared in Michael Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, to talk about bank pressure to vote for the bailouts. He made a tough vote, months later, to support extending health coverage to 31 million of his fellow Americans by supporting the Affordable Care Act. He was bullied by right-wing hecklers, and pummeled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in deceptive attack ads sponsored by corporate lobbyists. Some of the fronts airing ads against him, like the US Chamber of Commerce, turned out to be financed by the same insurance companies Hill moved to regulate with his ‘aye’ vote on healthcare reform. 

K Street’s assault on Hill was part of an orchestrated effort to take out as many Democrats as possible and replace them with reactionary Tea Partiers. Todd Young, a far-right former Heritage Foundation staffer, defeated Hill with the help of a wave of corporate-funded attack ads. And Hill’s Blue Dog caucus was the biggest casualty in the last election.


The stinging electoral defeat—only 23 of 54 Blue Dog members were reelected—taught them one thing: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Earlier this year, a pack of retired Blue Dog lawmakers now working as K Street lobbyists, led in part by Hill, formed an organization called “Center Forward.” The group is the latest manifestation of a think tank created in 2010, the “Blue Dog Research Forum,” purportedly designed to “find commonsense solutions to America’s greatest challenges.”


As the Washington Post’s Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam reported this week, Center Forward is pouring nearly $4 million this cycle into broadcast media to help elect conservative House Democrats, as well as three right-wing House Republicans. Some of the ads are posted on this YouTube channel.

GOP blogs have complained that Center Forward is some type of partisan “Super PAC.” But Super PACs are largely disclosed. Center Forward is actually organized as a 501(c)(4) issue advocacy group, meaning the group can behave like a political committee without revealing its donors.


Rather than being an independent think tank, as the Center’s website implies, tax forms reviewed by The Nation reveal that the organization is closely tied to a variety of corporate lobbying firms now occupied by ex–Blue Dog members of Congress.


The Center is registered to 325 7th Street NW, Suite 400, a Washington, DC, address shared with a lobbying business called the C2 Group. The C2 Group, which represents Comcast, AXA Financial, PepsiCo, the US Chamber of Commerce and YUM! Brands, among others, specializes in peddling influence to conservative Democrats. The website sells the firm’s lobbying expertise and its “close working relationship with the Blue Dog Coalition.”


The tax forms show that C2 Group partner Jeff Murray is the treasurer and custodian of records for Center Forward. Murray is the former chief of staff to Bud Cramer, a Blue Dog leader in Congress before he became a lobbyist with Wexler & Walker, another DC influence-peddling company.


Though Cori Smith, the executive director of Center Forward, declined to respond to The Nation’s request for comments, it appears that her group is attempting to scrub its ties to K Street. Earlier this year, the Center’s website prominently featured the following board members: Bud Cramer, John Tanner, Baron Hill, Vickie Walling and Libby Greer on its “About Us” page. Now, that portion of the site simply lists a vague statement from Cramer.


The omission might relate to the fact that every single board member is a lobbyist. Tanner, a former Democratic lawmaker from Tennessee, works for Prime Policy Group, a major lobby group led by consummate GOP insider Charlie Black; Hill, after losing his seat in 2010, is now at APCO, a global lobbying powerhouse; Walling is a lobbyist at Tanner’s firm; and Greer is a lobbyist for Cauthen, Forbes & Williams.

While the Center blames the “far left” for the loss of pragmatic politics in Congress, it’s worth noting that lobbyists manipulated the same 501(c) section of the tax code as Center Forward in order to sink Blue Dogs and elect radical right Tea Partiers.

The US Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying association for Fortune 500 companies, ran nearly $400,000 in corporate-funded ads against Hill, contributing to his defeat. The Chamber used its 501c group, so there was no disclosure on the source of the money for those ads.

Rather than battling the Chamber, Hill seems to be adopting their practices and even working for their consultants. His new place of employment, APCO, helped manage both the health insurers’ and the Chamber’s lobbying campaign in 2010, the year Hill was defeated.

Hill’s Center Forward launched with a partnership with Purple Strategies and the American Action Forum. Purple Strategies, as I’ve noted, manages GOP ad-buys against Congressional Democrats. The American Action Forum is yet another corporate-funded 501(c)(4) that acts as a front to funnel corporate money into undisclosed attack ads in support of pro-big business Republicans.


In Congress, the Blue Dogs worked with lobbyists to obstruct and water down progressive reforms. But they ultimately voted for many of these legislative items. Their piecemeal subservience to corporate America wasn’t enough—they had to be replaced by Republicans who would toe the K Street line without objection. In defeat, the Blue Dogs are still portraying themselves as middle-of-the-road centrists. In practice, the few differences they had with right-wing business interests have now faded away. 

The new bipartisan consensus that Center Forward is trying to promote is simple. Don’t fight corporate interests. Work for them.

Syndicate content