Shadowy group's advertisements slap Pennsylvania governor
Pennsylvania's airwaves are getting cloudier.
Dark money groups, the political organizations that can spend unlimited amounts of money on ads without disclosing donors, have dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars this year into races they claim not to be engaged in, according to public records.
At the front of the pack is Pennsylvanians for Accountability, a union-funded group that spent more than $200,000 in airtime on a commercial criticizing Gov. Tom Corbett for cutting education funding and backing corporate “giveaways.” Corbett, a Shaler Republican, is up for re-election next year.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability bills itself as a “social welfare organization” in state filings, a designation that exempts it from paying taxes and disclosing who bankrolls it. The spending is enabled by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
“These people are dirty,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township. Pennsylvanians for Accountability mailed fliers to voters that targeted him and several other Republicans during his re-election campaign last year. “I hate anonymous people. ... Just stand up for what you believe in.”
The group filed nonprofit incorporation papers with the Department of State in September, according to state documents. Its website consists mostly of links to newspaper stories about education funding cuts and gifts Corbett and his wife received from wealthy supporters.
“We are committed to informing the public about misinformation the governor is providing about his budget priorities, in accordance with the primary public advocacy purpose of this organization, and are in the process of filing for 501(c)4 recognition pursuant to the law,” said spokeswoman Lyndsey Kryzwick, the only person associated with the group who is listed on its website.
Ties to unions
The Internal Revenue Service went under fire for scrutinizing conservative groups claiming the same nonprofit status that Pennsylvanians for Accountability seeks, though the agency since told Congress that its investigators also flagged for scrutiny groups with liberal-sounding names. Kryzwick declined to provide details about her group's application to the IRS, including when it submitted paperwork.
Kryzwick is vice president of the national issue advocacy practice in BerlinRosen, a New York campaign consulting firm serving politicians, unions and nonprofits. Before that, she worked for the Service Employees International Union in New York and Pennsylvania, according to a biography on BerlinRosen's website.
The SEIU gave $180,000 to Pennsylvanians for Accountability on Oct. 11 for “political advocacy,” according to an annual report the union filed with the Department of Labor. Union officials did not return calls.
How much the union gave this year won't be known until it files the same report next year. The union's Pennsylvania Council separately spent more than $30,000 on ads. The SEIU and Pennsylvanians for Accountability used the same Washington-based media company, The New Media Firm, to book ads.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability's state filing lists SEIU activist Georgeanne Koehler of Bloomfield as one of three incorporators. The two others are Linda Cook of Brookhaven in Delaware County and Kevin Kantz of Edinboro in Erie County, both of whom worked for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union and a bitter foe of Corbett's.
Kantz declined to comment; Koehler and Cook did not return calls.
Groups that spend more than $100 to influence an election must file financial reports with the Department of State, according to state law. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, plans to convene a hearing to determine whether Pennsylvanians for Accountability broke the law.
“It's one thing if you're operating above-board, but if you're trying to hide where the money's coming from, that's not what the law provides for in Pennsylvania,” Metcalfe said.
The law, though, is not so clear-cut. A 1976 Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo, allows groups to run ads outside the reach of campaign finance laws as long as those ads don't expressly advocate how to vote. The Pennsylvanians for Accountability ad doesn't mention next year's election.
Most nonprofits that bought political ads this year make it easier to figure out who they are and where they get money.
The American Petroleum Institute, which spent about $70,000, identifies itself as an oil industry group. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which bought about $96,000 in ads, lists on its website the mayors who signed onto the national campaign.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability, by contrast, won't disclose its supporters. Its public filings list two addresses: a UPS store in O'Hara and a locked office in Highland Park with a small sign beside the door identifying it as the office of America Votes, another union-backed group.
“PA for Accountability has a number of donors interested in creating a stronger Pennsylvania,” Kryzwick wrote in an email. “We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of concerned taxpayers statewide. We are subleasing office space in Pittsburgh.”
More to come
Another anti-Corbett group with ties to organized labor, Real American Values, bought about $63,000 in ads in the Harrisburg media market in April after filing paperwork with the Department of State claiming status as a nonprofit social welfare organization.
Robert Wolper, the group's sole incorporator, is vice president of Strategic Communications Consultants in Blue Bell in Montgomery County. Real American Values and the consulting firm share an address.
According to his biography on the firm's website, Wolper spent decades as a union activist and “has an extensive network of contacts with state and national union and political leaders.”
Wolper did not return calls and emails for comment.
Other nonprofits that bought airtime include NumbersUSA, which advocates allowing fewer immigrants, and the Coalition for Medicare Choice, which shares a Washington address with America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade association for health insurance companies. Both spent about $50,000 on ads this year.
Anonymous donations allow people to support a cause without risking fallout — a boycott of their business by people who disagree, for example — said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
With a high-profile governor's race and other offices on the ballot in 2014, the prevalence of anonymous advocacy groups in Pennsylvania likely will grow, he said.
“People may not like them,” Madonna said, “but until Congress explains and clarifies how much politics these 501(c)4s are allowed to engage in, it's going to be this way.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.