Alaskans grew suspicious two years ago when a national organization called Americans for Job Security showed up and spent $1.6 million pushing a referendum to restrict development of a gold and copper mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
It seemed an oddly parochial fight for a pro-business group based in the Washington suburbs that had spent tens of millions of dollars since the late 1990s roughing up Democrats with negative advertisements around election time.
But after the mine’s supporters filed a complaint with the state, it became clear that what was depicted as grass-roots opposition was something else entirely: Americans for Job Security, investigators found, had helped create the illusion of a popular upwelling to shield the identity of a local financier who paid for most of the referendum campaign.
More broadly, they said, far from being a national movement advocating a “pro-paycheck message,” the group is actually a front for a coterie of political operatives, devised to sidestep campaign disclosure rules.
“Americans for Job Security has no purpose other than to cover various money trails all over the country,” the staff of the Alaska Public Offices Commission said in a report last year.
The report went mostly unnoticed outside Anchorage. But its conclusions suddenly loom large in the current debate over nonprofit advocacy groups like Americans for Job Security, which campaign watchdogs say allow moneyed interests to influence elections without revealing themselves. Congress is now wrangling over a bill that would require some disclosure.
With every election cycle comes a shadow army of benignly titled nonprofit groups like Americans for Job Security, devoted to politically charged “issue advocacy,” much of it negative. But they are now being heard as never before — in this year of midterm discontent, Tea Party ferment and the first test of the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited, and often anonymous, corporate political spending. Already they have spent more than $100 million — mostly for Republicans and more than twice as much as at this point four years ago.
None have been more active than Americans for Job Security, which spent $6 million on ads during the primary season. This week, emboldened by the court ruling, the group paid close to $4 million more for ads directly attacking nine Democratic candidates for Congress. That made it among the first to abandon the old approach of running ads that stopped just short of explicitly urging voters to elect or reject individual candidates.
Americans for Job Security says it is careful to hew to tax and campaign-finance laws: It may not spend the majority of its resources on political activity or coordinate with party committees, and may keep its donors secret only as long as their contributions are not intended for specific ad campaigns close to an election. Instead of earmarked donations, the group says, it collects membership dues and then decides, on its own, how to spend the money.
“We believe issue advocacy is much more effective than banging down doors of members of Congress,” said the group’s president, Stephen DeMaura. “And you now have the Supreme Court of the United States reaffirming our rights.”
An examination of Americans for Job Security — based on a review of its recent activities, as well as on interviews and previously unreleased documents from the Alaska case — provides a rare look inside the opaque world of these ascendant advocacy organizations. Its deep ties to a Republican consulting operation raise questions about whether, under cover of its tax-exempt mission “to promote a strong, job-creating economy,” the group is largely a funnel for anonymous donations.
“A lot of nonprofits game the system, but A.J.S. is unusual in that they so blatantly try to influence elections and evade disclosure,” said Taylor Lincoln, a research director at the watchdog group Public Citizen, which has filed complaints against the group in recent years. “By any common-sense, reasonable interpretation of what they do, they are in violation of the rules.”
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