-by Jane Mayer
March 30, 2012- A new and highly aggressive multi-million-dollar anti-Obama ad campaign has started airing on television stations in eight key political swing states—but for now at least, the funders are staying hidden in the shadows.
The ads in question have a distinctly oily aura, which is unsurprising, perhaps since the group sponsoring them has been funded in the past by major fossil-fuel companies. The group defines itself as a non-partisan nonprofit, but exemplifies the growing role that secret money is playing in the 2012 Presidential campaign. Technically, the ads have been produced and aired by the Washington-based American Energy Alliance, a 501c-4 social-welfare organization under the Internal Revenue Service’s tax code, whose activities, under the law, have to be largely non-political. This group shares office space and personnel with a sister organization, the Institute for Energy Research, a 501c-3, whose tax status is typically reserved for charities. Its activities have to be strictly non-partisan and non-political. Both groups hide the identities of their funders. All that Benjamin Cole, director of communications for both groups would say is that the ads are funded by “individuals, foundations, and corporations.”
Cole says that the $3.6 million ad campaign “is not election related at all. We’re not seeking to influence the elections.” It is, he says, only a coincidence that most of the eight states that the ads will air in—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia—are considered hotly contested swing states that could decide the outcome of the election. He says these states were chosen only because they are all places where energy is an issue. He explained, for instance, that offshore oil drilling is an issue in Virginia, and the high price of gasoline is an issue in Florida—a definition that would, it seems, allow for the group to chose any state.
He acknowledges, however, that the ads will directly blame Obama for recent increases in gas prices, despite the fact that even such conservative and libertarian voices such as Cato Institute scholars and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal have protested that this is specious.
So who is behind the advertising campaign to push the line that Obama is to blame? Bill Burton, senior strategist at the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA believes that it comes from a familiar source. “The Koch brothers and other oil barons are using profits from high gas prices to fund false political attacks benefitting Governor Romney,” he says.
Cole retorts that there is “not a single penny of Koch money” paying for the two-week ad campaign. But he declined to confirm or deny reports, including one by Politico, that the Koch brothers, whose privately owned conglomerate, Koch Industries, is a major domestic-oil refiner, have steered funds to both the American Energy Alliance and the Institute for Energy Research. A spokesperson at Koch Industries did not respond to questions on the Kochs’ ties to the groups.
The ties, though, appear to be extensive. In the past, according to National Public Radio, the Energy Research Institute has received funds from the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, which is controlled by the Kochs, as well as from Exxon Mobil and other energy companies.