Dark money group funnels $1.5M into Ala. Governor’s race
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Millions of dollars are flowing into the state ahead of the upcoming primary election. Some estimate the race to clinch the Republican nomination for governor could exceed state fundraising records. So far, the crowded field’s raised more than $20 million combined.
We believe you should know who’s donating to state and federal races. Most often, that information is easy to access. But there’s a growing national movement that allows donors to contribute to groups without being disclosed - and it’s surfacing in Alabama’s governor’s race.
Last week we first told you about Governor Kay Ivey’s largest donor, Get Families Back to Work, who contributed two $750,000 contributions back-to-back. It’s the largest single donation Ivey’s received since 2013 according to state campaign finance records.
Get Families Back to Work is a 501(c)(4), a social welfare nonprofit that isn’t required to report its donors, or what’s frequently referred to as a dark money group.
“It’s called dark money for a reason,” explained Pete Quist, a researcher with Open Secrets, which tracks spending for state and federal political races. “It’s really difficult to understand who’s behind that specific nonprofit.”
Quist says the main driver for dark money groups is to hide who’s writing the checks.
“That’s why we have campaign finance disclosures to begin with, to see contributions to political campaigns so you can as a voter can understand who the friends are for the candidates that you choose,” added Quist.
WBRC attempted to track down information about Get Families Back to Work and its $1.5 million donation. It has a Washington, D.C. address, the same as the Republican Governor’s Association; but, it’s registered as a nonstock corporation in Virginia. The articles of incorporation show it was established in 2021. The officers: Dave Rexrode, Laura Ciciarelli and Erim Canligil also serve as senior staff members of the Republican Governor’s Association.
Despite numerous attempts to reach the RGA, WBRC received no response. Governor Ivey’s campaign also made no effort to explain who’s behind the money or its mission.
“So the candidates get to know who it is, right,” asked Quist. “The nonprofit is making a contribution to a candidate, that nonprofit can talk to that candidate about what they want and who they represent and so forth. But the public can’t see it. One of the key features of an accountable democracy is an informed electorate and the idea that you should be able to understand who you’re voting for and what kind of interest that they represent.”
By virtue of how dark money groups are organized, we may never know who’s signing the checks. While it’s considered a nonprofit, Get Families Back to Work isn’t listed as a tax-exempt organization by the IRS.
“Eventually, they should have to file a 990 which is basically a statement of their organization, who their major officers are and anybody that’s substantially paid like an executive perhaps, but that’s about it,” Quist reported. “So you don’t see the donations to the to the group, where they’re getting their funding and who they’re really representing as their donors.”
According to IRS regulations, 501(c)(4)’s primary purpose cannot be political activity. Quist says this means they can’t spend most of their money on contributions or on messages that explicitly say to support or oppose a candidate for election.
“However, those regulations are a little vague,” he stated. “So you can run ads that show a picture of a candidate in black and white with fire and brimstone behind them and argue is that really electioneering activity if we don’t say to vote for or against this person, and rather say that they’re really bad on an issue or something like that.”
According to state campaign finance records, this is the group’s sole donation in Alabama. It’s not something we see often in state races. There are no contribution limits in Alabama, leaving little reason to hide behind dark money groups – at least for now.
“We are seeing an increase in dark money around the country and it is very likely that this will actually happen more in the Alabama elections going forward through the years,” Quist stated.
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