Bacon Bits: Dark Money Update

Things Go Better with Koch. George Mason University wants its university foundation board to be exempt from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. But Transparent GMU, a student group, has sued the foundation to turn over records of agreements with private donors, in particular those from the conservative-libertarian Charles Koch Foundation. University officials have conceded that agreements with the Koch organization had strings attached giving it input into the hiring of faculty associated with its gifts. A circuit court judge sided with the university last summer. Now the case has made it to the Virginia Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard yesterday, reports the Virginia Mercury.

The case raises legitimate legal issues, as described in the article. But as a matter of public policy, it seems evident that university foundations, which administer billions of dollars for public Virginia universities, are integral components of the institutions, and their activities are closely coordinated. I side with Transparent GMU and say that GMU’s foundations — indeed all public college foundations — should be subject to FOIA.

Of course, I also say that Transparent GMU also should be more, well… transparent. The student group’s Facebook page reveals nothing about where it gets its money. It’s highly unlikely, however, that a bunch of students could afford to appeal the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. Where did Transparent GMU’s money come from? There is probably a connection with UnKoch My Campus, a well-funded organization devoted to dogging the Charles Koch Foundation around the country. But UnKoch My Campus is itself less than fully transparent about where its money comes from. Time for a little less hypocrisy and more transparency all around.

What does ACRONYM stand for? ACRONYM, a self-described political organization “committed to building progressive power and creating sustainable digital infrastructure for the progressive movement,” has donated $150,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia, reports The Washington Free Beacon — tied for the largest single donation the party has received this year.

Writes the Free Beacon:

As a nonprofit, a majority of ACRONYM’s funds must be used to promote “social welfare.” However, the group has a web of for-profit companies beneath it including a “campaign consulting firm (Lockwood Strategy), a political tech company with peer-to-peer texting product (Shadow) and a media company investing in local left-leaning outlets (FWIW Media).

The group was founded by Tara McGowan, a 30-year-0ld Democratic strategist who in 2017 coordinated 100% of the digital advertising for Governor Ralph Northam’s gubernatorial race. So, where does ACRONYM get its funding?

The Washington, D.C.-based organization takes donations through ActBlue Civics software, which enables Democrats, progressive groups, and nonprofits to raise money over the Internet. These contributions are not tax deductible, advises the ACRONYM website. Is there also big money behind ACRONYM? Good luck finding out. If the nonprofit has filed a 990 form, it does not yet appear in 990 form search results. If there is big money behind ACRONYM, that money is being recycled anonymously to the Democratic Party of Virginia. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) reports ACRONYM’s $150,000 contribution to the DPVA but has no data on where ACRONYM’s money comes from.

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9 responses to “Bacon Bits: Dark Money Update

  1. Sauce for the goose; sauce for the gander. One ought to get flesh-eating bacteria for demanding to see information about another group’s donors when one’s organization does not publish the identity of its donors.

  2. The loopholes are opened by a knowing and willing Congress and General Assembly. Both parties enjoy them. They can close most of them any time they want (maybe not for private schools). Hear the crickets?

  3. Further proof that VPAP is virtually useless.

    • and I have to agree… VPAP has been co-opted in a similar way that the SCC has.. they serve a purpose of supposedly providing transparency in politics but it’s farcial because of the swiss-cheese nature of money in politics. People are foolish to think they can rely on VPAP for the full truth – it’s a slim part and not the whole truth and sorry to say, VPAP itself does not seem to advocate for more/better transparency…. they’ve branched out into political “news” instead.

      I like this group but they’re more an advocate than a collector of data:

      The Virginia Coalition for Open Government:
      We are a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level. Our efforts are focused solely on local/state information access. While we do some lobbying (within limits imposed by IRS rules), our primary work is educational. The Coalition was formed in 1996, after a year-long organizing effort. Our board of directors represents the state’s access activists and friends of open government, including Virginia’s librarians, genealogists, broadcasters, newspapers and the public at large. Start-up funding was provided by the Virginia Press Association, the Virginia Association of Broadcasters, Media General, the Landmark Communications Foundation, America Online, all of the major in-state newspapers, public radio and television stations, a number of commercial stations and other friends of open government. Supporters also include Dominion, Appalachian Power, SunTrust, LexisNexis, Christian & Barton, Conservation Voters League, Woods Rogers, Gentry Locke.

      Note that Dominion and APCO are supporters

  4. I am starting a group: “UnKoch My
    Blogsite” no funding yet

  5. But glad jimagrees with foia transparency

  6. ” Non-Profit C4 Vs. C3

    Title 26, Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code recognizes several different types of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit corporations, trusts and foundations have several advantages over for-profit organizations, including an exemption from paying federal income taxes. Two classes of 501(c) nonprofits, known as “C3” and “C4” organizations, are similar in some respects. However, they have different eligibility requirements, and the IRS places different restrictions on their activities and donations. When deciding whether to structure your nonprofit as a C3 or a C4, these distinctions should be considered.To qualify as a nonprofit, an organization must be structured and operated for one of the purposes recognized in Section 501(c). A 501(c)(3) organization must operate exclusively for a charitable purpose. Advocating for improvements in education, defending civil rights and providing assistance to the poor are common charitable purposes. A 501(c)(4) nonprofit must operate exclusively for the promotion of social welfare. Civic associations and volunteer fire departments are common social welfare organizations.”

    https://info.legalzoom.com/nonprofit-c4-vs-c3-22483.html

    Remember the IRS “scandal” in which the IRS was accused of discriminating against Conservative political groups?

    See the definitions above – clearly – some groups have carefully read the regulations to see how they could collect money and retain non-profit status – even though they are involved in advocacy in political issues – as opposed to actually working on true social welfare… in the community – like a food bank or free clinic or volunteer taxes or fire service.

    It may be time to go back and re-think how these things work and whether or not such transactions should be disclosed or not.

    but also – goose and gander. If you find yourself on one side of the political spectrum and you object to the other side using “dark” money – be honest and look at the side you support also. Are you for equal treatment of both sides on these issues or do you just object to the other sides behaviors?

    • I’m real clear Larry, no tax-exempt status for any organization that lobbies or otherwise tries to affect public policy or opinion when that organization pays employees or outside contractors to do that work. Advocating for improvements in education or defending civil rights would be taxable activities. Operating a food bank for low-income people would not so long as there is no paid advocacy.

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