NYT Examines Most “Active” Among “Shadowy Army” of Nonprofits

But can't tell us where Americans for Job Security gets its cash

On Friday, the New York Times’s Mike McIntire provided a detailed look at Americans for Job Security, one among, as McIntire wrote, a “shadow army of benignly titled nonprofit groups” that come “with every election cycle.” Why focus on this one?

For one thing, Americans for Job Security (AJS) has been the most “active” such group thus far, having spent, McIntire reports, “$6 million on ads during the primary season” (see this Washington Post chart for spending details). For another, the Alaska Public Offices Commission last year took an “extensive look at the operations of Americans for Job Security,” an inquiry which was used, via public information request, to inform and enhance the Times’s examination — and which, together with “a review of [the group’s] recent activities,” McIntire wrote, “provides a rare look inside the opaque world of these ascendant advocacy organizations.”

From McIntire’s lede:

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.

That bill fell to a Republican filibuster in the Senate last week. (An aside about that “mostly unnoticed report” out of Alaska: documents show, McIntire reports, that AJS’s lawyers were “worried” that the report “could be noticed ‘by the local, and potentially national, press.’”)

McIntire offers many interesting details about AJS, including: the group’s “sole employee” is “a 25-year-old former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party who cut his political teeth as an undergraduate by starting an anti-Hillary Clinton Facebook page;” it is “sometimes hard to discern the boundaries separating Americans for Job Security from the consultants in its [Alexandria, VA] office suite and the interests of their Republican clients;” and, in 2007, prompted by a complaint filed by a consumer advocacy organization, Federal Election Commission lawyers found there was “’reason to believe’ [Americans For Job Security] had violated campaign finance laws,” but did not pursue an investigation after “deadlock[ing] along party lines.”

The key detail not in McIntire’s report is, of course, from where Americans for Job Security’s money comes. Reports McIntire:

Because Americans for Job Security was formed as a tax-exempt business league — known as a 501(c)(6) in the tax code — it does not have to report its sources of income…

Americans for Job Security avoids disclosure by reporting all its revenue as “membership dues.” It claims more than 1,000 members. But a review of its tax returns shows membership revenue fluctuating wildly depending on election cycles — similar to the fund-raising of political committees that escalates during campaign season.

Here’s the AJS’s explanation, from its web site, for why — apart from the fact that they don’t have to— they don’t name their “members” (note, it’s partly the “media’s” fault):

Our members are businesses, business leaders and entrepreneurs from around the country. AJS does not disclose or discuss its membership further than this. Too often politicians or the media define an organization or message not by the merits of the argument, but rather by the perception of the people associated with it. We would rather the people decide on merits instead of name-calling.

While the public may not know who Americans for Job Security’s “members” are, many people have or will experience their “membership dues” in action. Reports McIntire:

This week, emboldened by the court ruling, the group paid close to $4 million…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.

This morning, PolitiFact gave a “half-true” rating to one such ad.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.