-By Dan Froomkin & Paul Blumenthal

June 9, 2012- WASHINGTON — Secret campaign money is making its big comeback in 2012, playing an important role in a presidential election for the first time since corporate titans flew into the nation's capital in the early 1970s carrying satchels of cash for Richard Nixon’s slush funds.

For the country's top political consultants and media buyers, that means a huge new revenue stream — and long shadows to hide in.

Campaign committees and super PACs need to report to the Federal Election Commission who they pay and how much they pay them. According to a Huffington Post analysis, the top 150 consultants and media buyers have already grossed $466 million so far this election cycle.

But there’s a whole other stream of money flowing through the system covertly, thanks to politically active groups that exploit a non-profit status — under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the tax code — intended for social welfare organizations and trade associations. That status allows them to hide their donors entirely, and to report their spending not to the FEC, but to the Internal Revenue Service, as much as 18 months later, and in a limited fashion.

Some of the election's biggest advertising buys have come from these non-profit groups. A Huffington Post analysis of the scant information available — mostly press releases and news reports — finds that they have spent more than $80 million on campaign-related advertisements, while disclosing to the government only a tiny slice of where that money went.

Take for example the centerpiece advertisement for a $25 million campaign from the Karl Rove-linked group, Crossroads GPS. The ad features an actress playing an aging mother whose adult children have moved back in with her because of the bad economy.



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