By Jonathan D. Salant – Mar 28, 2012 8:00 PM ET
Some secret donors who gave money to groups that paid for millions of dollars in attack ads during the 2010 midterm elections are becoming public.
Chevron Corp. (CVX), an oil and gas company; Merck & Co. (MRK), a drug maker; and the American Petroleum Institute are among the entities that have disclosed through corporate filings orInternal Revenue Service reports their donations to politically active groups that are growing in influence.
The non-party organizations that don’t disclose their donors increased their spending to $133 million in 2010, compared with $875,000 during the previous off-year elections in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and favored Republicans by a ratio of 10-to-1.
“If the disclosure comes so much later, after the ads have been paid for and the candidates have been elected, not knowing who was influencing that spending leaves voters in the dark,”said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group that follows campaign money. “You don’t know what the agendas of the groups are and you don’t know the money behind these ads.”
Representatives of all three entities said they gave money to pay for advocacy of their industry in Washington, not for political purposes.
“Our goal is simple,” said Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the Washington-based petroleum institute. “We give to groups to engage them and their members in the energy debate, and the importance of developing vast oil and natural gas resources.”
Still, none said they would stop giving or impose restrictions on their future contributions. Some lawmakers say the groups these corporations and trade associations supported exist only to engage in political activity.
“It’s clear these organizations are spending a lot of money on political campaigns, not social welfare activities,”said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat.
Such distinctions can be lost when money moves between organizations and ends in one that pledges to keep its contributors’ names secret.
Take the case of Merck, the second-largest U.S. drug maker. It gave $7 million in 2010 to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s trade association, according to a disclosure on the company’s website. PhRMA donated $4.5 million the same year to the American Action Network, a Washington-based group that doesn’t disclose its donors. The PhRMA donation was the largest contribution the drug makers’ group made in at least three years, according to IRS records.
Follow the Money
American Action Network, whose chairman is former Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, spent more than $19 million on ads in the midterm elections to help elect Republicans, Federal Election Commission records show.
One advertisement targeting Democratic Representative Dina Titus of Nevada accused her of supporting funding Viagra for rapists in the health-care legislation that was signed into law by President Barack Obama and is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Titus, a House member, never voted on the issue; rather, the Senate had considered an amendment seeking to restrict spending on the erectile dysfunction drug. “What is going inWashington?” the ad said. Titus lost her re-election bid.
In addition to its check to the American Action Network, PhRMA also gave $3.4 million to a Democratic-leaning outside group, Citizens for Strength and Security, according to disclosures made to the IRS.
“We give support to a wide variety of organizations, all of whom share our mission of increasing access to innovative medicines that help improve the lives of Americans,” said Matt Bennett, a PhRMA spokesman.
Some companies took steps to ensure that their contributions weren’t used for political activity.
Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU) contributed $2.1 million to U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an affiliate that advocates for restrictions on lawsuits, according to a disclosure on the company’s website. The chamber spent $30 million in 2010 — more than any other outside group — and most of it was aimed at helping to elect Republicans, FEC records show.
“The money that we give them was largely an endowment to help them with operating expenses,” said Bob DeFillippo, a spokesman for Newark, New Jersey-based Prudential, the second-biggest U.S. life insurer.
Target Corp. (TGT), which gave to the chamber, said on its website that it instructs groups it supports not to use their money “to influence the outcome of specific elections.”