Lucky sole vendors for some nonprofits do very well, thank you.

by Will Tucker on May 19, 2016

Thomas J. Pyle, the lobbyist behind the American Energy Alliance.

For years, a handful of nonprofits — including the kind often used as “dark money” machines — have acted as veritable cash cows for one or two political or advertising vendors, new data shows.

The data sheds light on who, ultimately, takes home the loads of cash deposited into dark money groups that are often used to influence political discourse and elections since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The data was culled from IRS Form 990s filed by the the groups, and was collected from the nonprofits information service Guidestar as part of the Center for Responsive Politics’ dark money research initiative.

Between 2011 and 2013, thousands of U.S. nonprofits paid out $1.9 billion to a single lucky contractor. For some of these groups — which aren’t required to disclose their donors — it was a political vendor, lobbying firm or industry strategist that made off with loads of cash as the lone contractor.

Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firms did particularly well on this front. The plainly-named America, Inc. — not the beer-formerly-known-as-Budweiser, but a 501(c)(4) dark money group that says it aims to “educate Americans about traditional and contemporary American values” — paid 95 percent of its total outlays to a consulting firm in Alexandria called Creative Response Concepts, which has done work for the Republican National Committee and the party’s House and Senate committees as well as other conservative dark money groups like Concerned Women for America and the Judicial Crisis Network. The $2.4 million in spending was for “media and consulting services,” according to the group’s 2011 tax filing. America, Inc. didn’t return a request for comment.

Other nonprofits were clearly industry fronts. In 2008, American Energy Alliance — which spent $1 million in 2012 opposing President Barack Obama’s re-election — paid $1.6 million, or 96 percent of its total expenditures, to Crossroads Media LLC. The group has been run by a lobbyist for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, and has received millions of dollars from other dark money groups tied to David and Charles Koch.

Americans Against Food Taxes, operated by the American Beverage Association‘s top lobbyist, paid every penny of its total expenditures — $3.7 million — to Goddard Claussen Public Affairs in Washington in 2011. The organization was a “grassroots manpower” operation fighting soda taxes, according to a 2011 Huffington Post report — but the “grassroots” were major corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

Yet another Alexandria firm, Weber Merritt, made more than $871,000 from the energy industry-backing FACES of Coal in 2012–91 percent of the group’s total spending. FACES of Coal took issue with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Water Act regulations in 2010; that year, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blog called the group an “astroturf campaign” after tracking down the photos of supposed coal supporters on its website to a stock photo repository.

Goddard Claussen appears to have split up, but promoted itself as the pioneer of issues advocacy advertising; Ben Goddard is credited with the “Harry and Louise” ads that helped sink the health care overhaul proposed by First Lady Hillary Clinton early in her husband’s administration. Weber Merritt doesn’t show up elsewhere in’s database of political vendors, but its website lists mainly corporate clients, including Sprint, DuPont and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

For some, paying one vendor is part of the business model. In 2013, Democracy Corps, the nonprofit home of long-time Bill Clinton hands James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg, paid out $653,800 to a single firm — Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a firm making millions serving House and Senate Democrats this cycle where Greenberg is chairman and CEO, according to its website. The payments made up 95 percent of the nonprofit’s total spending in 2013.

Or take the coalition of Environment America groups. Affiliates of the political nonprofit and major dark money donor have paid millions to outsource their work to the liberal nonprofit Fund for the Public Interest, based in Boston; the Fund is a nonprofit started by Environment America itself, according to a spokeswoman. In 2013, Environment California paid the Fund $2.7 million for “financial” work — a figure that made up fully 80 percent of the nonprofit’s total outlays that year.

Environment California wasn’t alone. Environment Oregon paid the Fund $985,787 in 2013, or 87 percent of the group’s total expenditures. Environment Colorado paid the company $872,948 in 2012–85 percent of its total outlays that year. Environment Massachusetts paid it $922,477 in 2012–69 percent of the group’s total outlays that year. Environment America itself paid the firm 44 percent of its total expenditures in 2011 — nearly $1.4 million — for “outreach and program services.”

For those groups, the big payments to Fund for the Public Interest left little money for anything else. The Fund, according to its form 990, spends most of its money paying many employees to go door-to-door gathering signatures — and contributions.

“Environment America is at heart, citizen-based and citizen-funded,” Elizabeth Ouztes, a spokeswoman for the group, said. “It’s not a surprise that the bulk of our expenses would go toward hiring hundreds of canvassers every year.”

Ouztes said the group worked last year to protect Clean Water Act rules and other environmental regulations.

Pollitical Nonprofits Investigator Robert Maguire contributed to this post.

Originally published at on May 19, 2016.

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