-By J. Crewdson, A. Fitzgerald, J. Salant and C. Babcock
May 19, 2011- In the weeks before last November’s election, television viewers in South Carolina were treated to an animated caricature of Representative John Spratt high- kicking in a chorus line with President Barack Obama and then- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“It’s the worst economy in decades,” the ad intoned, “and the folks in Washington are living it up, spending our tax dollars like there’s no tomorrow.”
That ad and a second one mocking Spratt appeared at least 723 times between Sept. 25 and Election Day and were paid for by a group called the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity, according to ad trackers at Campaign Media Analysis Group, a unit of WPP Plc. Spratt, a 14-term Democrat, saw a seven-point lead in an early poll vanish and lost the election.
Commission on Hope and four other Republican-leaning groups spent at least $4.05 million attacking candidates in the run-up to the November voting, according to Campaign Media estimates and TV station records obtained by Bloomberg News. None of that spending can be found searching the public database of the Federal Election Commission, and FEC spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger said the commission has no record of it.
Federal law requires FEC disclosure of money spent on ads mentioning or depicting a candidate in the 60 days before a general election. The five groups whose spending wasn’t reported either declined to comment, were unreachable, or said they deemed the spending not reportable under the law.
The five are among the outside, or non-party, organizations that have played a growing role in federal elections. They include trade groups, unions and nonprofits started by political operatives that raise and spend money for advertising. The $305 million they reported spending in the 2010 elections was more than four times the amount such entities paid out in the midterm elections in 2006, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks FEC filings.
Growing more sharply is a subset that keeps secret the identities of donors who bankroll the ads. These outside organizations told the FEC they spent $137 million in the 2010 cycle — 25 times the 2006 level. Commission on Hope represents an even more secretive type that has taken itself off the radar of federal regulators entirely — by reporting neither spending nor donors to the FEC.
Non-party groups, including the secretive ones, are already planning to raise more money in the 2012 elections. They received a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case last year, which for the first time allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on ads advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.
The organizations face little scrutiny from the FEC, where split votes between Republican and Democratic commissioners have stymied enforcement in case after case for almost three years.
As a result, voters may find themselves choosing the next U.S. president knowing less about those trying to shape their views of the candidates than they have since secret money helped finance the Watergate burglary and re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972. Watergate led to his resignation and ushered in the law that created the FEC. Investigators found more than $20 million had been given behind the scenes to Nixon’s campaign.
In the 2010 election, donors tested how secret spending through outside groups works, and used it on a small scale, according to Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “There will be more next time,” she said.