Now, more and better data for tracking secret money

By: Sarah Bryner and Robert Maguire

Here’s the thing about dark money groups: Whatever their activity in real time, they always have an eye on how they’ll be describing it to the feds a year hence.

What do we mean by that? Right now and in recent months, a number of politically active nonprofits have been trying to influence the outcome of elections around the country. OpenSecrets.org has been watching and reporting on them as they spend millions to help Democratic or Republican candidates in various races. Because these groups — usually 501©(4) social welfare organizations or 501©(6) trade groups — don’t have to disclose their donors to the public, they are prime vehicles for corporations, unions or wealthy individuals who want to support their favored politician in a big way, but do not want to be identified to the masses (including, maybe especially, reporters).

So, there’s that.

Then, long after the fact, we see what story the organizations tell the IRS about their election-related activity. That happens a year or so after the spending takes place, when they file their Form 990 tax returns. Their favored tax status depends upon them keeping their political activity to less than half of their overall operations; their efforts to make the math work sometimes result in a tax return that contradicts what they reported to the Federal Election Commission months before.

It’s in connection with this second step in the process that OpenSecrets.org is excited to announce a major new expansion of DarkMoney.orgto better help journalists, watchdogs and the public track the IRS forms of thousands of groups and see how what appears on those filings meshes with what actually happened in the 2016 election cycle. This new, vastly larger set of tools adds to the suite of functions and information already available on the site.

Beginning today, OpenSecrets is providing downloadable financial information for over 20,000 nonprofit organizations — up from less than 500 — in the largest, cleanest and most detailed free resource for people researching the activities and networks of non-charity nonprofits and dark money organizations. Getting the data previously had been a difficult, very 20th-century process: We had to manually collect the 990 reports directly from the groups themselves, or get them in costly, convoluted batches from the IRS. Now, thanks to a generous grant from the Knight Foundation and additional funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have integrated digitized data on organizations, provided by Guidestar, with the rest of OpenSecrets’ data resources.

For the first time, visitors to OpenSecrets can see all grants made by 501©4, 501©5 and 501©6 organizations. If a grant was made to another politically active nonprofit — transfers between groups are common — visitors can easily see that group’s financial information, too, as well as whether it spends money on political activity.

This information goes far beyond other data sets made public to this point. The IRS’s own e-file data, released over the summer, is messier and less comprehensive. The new OpenSecrets.org data set uniquely does not depend on a group having electronically filed its tax returns with the IRS or having received approval as tax-exempt from the agency; all filings are there, with digitized, standardized data. Where applicable, the data has been matched with Federal Election Commission filings showing political activity, going back years further than the IRS e-file data.

With our standardization of what had been very cluttered data, users can more easily find key information on groups and connections between them. For example:

  • Wrong or missing Employer Identification Numbers (EINs) for recipients have been corrected so that a grant recipient’s own political spending and summary pages can accurately be matched up with our FEC data. In notable instances where a donor uses a secretive subsidiary LLC with its own EIN to obscure who the ultimate grantee is, we have provided the correct identityof that recipient
  • Vendors and board members have been standardized, allowing users to compare, across groups, who has been paid or who is involved with particular groups.
  • Groups that are missing from the digitized data are included. Major political spenders like Crossroads GPS on the right and VoteVets on the left have either never sought exempt status or had their applications approved by the IRS only recently, and therefore have years worth of data that does not show up in most data sets. We have added them and made their information available in the Nonprofit Data Search.

This all provides a more complete picture for anyone researching the activities of nonprofit groups that engage in politics or policy advocacy. Our new searchtool provides useful filters for types of groups that, for example, have spent most of their money on grants to other politically active organizations or have lots of money but no employees — both of which are hallmarks of dark money outfits. And users can the download data from their search results, as well as the data for individual groups whose summary pages they are looking at.

We also now provide information about all reported board members of these groups, as well as their highly compensated staff. Although what’s listed on a 990 is limited — just names, hours per week worked, and compensation — we will integrate this data with OpenSecrets’ other data as much as possible. That will show us which organizations have lobbyists on their board and which highly compensated staff are major political contributors. And we can show which individuals serve on multiple boards, revealing linkages between supposedly unaffiliated organizations.

One part of this we’re particularly enthused about: Data about the vendors used by these groups. In many cases, nonprofits in a network may use the same lawyers or PR firm — another way to uncover possible linkages.

A simple example:

1. Nine 501©4 organizations used a firm called “Amplified Strategies.”

Citizens Against the Maui County Farming BanAmplified strategies$501,216Coalition For Natural Open Space & Local JobsAmplified strategies$343,932Californians Against Higher TaxesAmplified strategies$395,940Californians For Fair Auto Insurance RatesAmplified Strategies$234,659Hold Politicians AccountableAmplified Strategies$275,525Yes On 21 Californians For State Parks & WildlifeAmplified strategies$357,059Stop Hidden TaxesAmplified strategies$448,601Stop the Jobs TaxAmplified strategies$320,616Californians for Energy IndependenceAmplified strategies$1,016,673

A further look reveals that these groups also share a variety of other vendors.

2. Those organizations, all of which appear to be in the western United States and targeting ballot initiatives, also share three board members between them. Steven S. Lucas, a lawyer based in San Francisco, is on the board of Stop Hidden Taxes, Stop the Jobs Tax, and Hold Politicians Accountable. Vigo Nielson is on the board of Californians Against Higher Taxes and Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates. And, Allan Zaremburg is on the board of Californians Against Higher Taxes, Hold Politicians Accountable, and Stop Hidden Taxes.

3. Steven Lucas has made federal campaign contributions, all of which went to Republicans.

All of this begs for more reporting, of course. But peeling back the layers to see who’s involved in the political process just got a little easier.

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