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Friday, November 8, 2013

Wellspring's Flow: Dark Money Outfit Helped Fuel Groups on Political Front Lines

by Viveca Novak, Robert Maguire and Peter Overby on November 5, 2013 5:15 AM
The third part of a package produced in collaboration with NPR. Part I is available here, and Part II is here.

For people who guard their privacy closely, Ann and Neil Corkery are key players in some very public enterprises. 

The many groups they are or have been involved with -- as board members or officers -- include the Catholic League, an aggressive defender of the church against what it sees as "slanderous assaults;" the National Organization for Marriage, which has fiercely fought official recognition of gay marriage; and the Judicial Crisis Network, which opposes what it sees as "activist" judges and has waded into the abortion battle.

Less publicly, Ann, 52, has run a politically active dark money group, the Wellspring Committee -- a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that isn't required to disclose its donors. Neil, 54, is connected to another, much smaller dark money group, The Annual Fund, which received all of its start-up funding from Wellspring. Neither group conducts any activities on its own, but together they have helped fund many more visible, highly political nonprofits that spent tens of millions of dollars on ads benefiting Republican causes and candidates in the 2010 and 2012 elections. 

From 2008 through 2011, Wellspring and the Annual Fund gave out more than $17 million in grants to other groups, according to tax filings the groups submitted to the IRS. (neither group's 2012 tax form is yet available.) And the impact of their contributions is amplified by the fact that they are part of a network of conservative tax-exempt groups that do little but transfer money, via grants, to other groups closer to the political front lines. Among them are the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) and TC4 Trust, which have given to many of the same grantees as the Corkerys' outfits. 

Groups that received money from Wellspring and the Annual Fund  -- like Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Job Security -- spent about $60 million in the 2010 federal elections and more than double that in the 2012 cycle, according to reports they filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

The amount of money that 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) groups have spent on federal elections has nearly tripled since 2008, FEC filings show, going from $110 million in 2008 to more than $311 million in 2012. While some of the surge was due to earlier legal developments, much of it was spurred by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC, which freed corporations -- including nonprofits -- to spend unlimited sums on elections as long as they don't coordinate their efforts with a candidate's campaign. 

The Corkerys would not agree to multiple requests for an interview. "I'm very much concerned about my privacy," Neil Corkery told NPR and the Center for Responsive Politics, which jointly produced this package of stories.

Sharing the wealth

If we could have talked to the mysterious couple, we'd have asked, among other things, how they decide which groups get funding from the two nonprofits. Some Wellspring and Annual Fund grantees focus on issues the Corkerys seem personally invested in, such as the National Right to Life Committee, which received $542,000, and Susan B. Anthony List, the recipient of more than $753,000; Wellspring cut checks to both groups in 2008. 

Other recipients, such as American Action NetworkAmericans for Job Security (AJS) and Americans for Prosperity, are notably active in the political ad wars. AJS, for example, which received a combined total of nearly $3 million from Wellspring in 2008 and 2010, spent at least $8.3 million on ads mentioning federal candidates in 2010, and nearly $16 million in 2012. AJS was also involved in a scheme last year that funneled $11 million into efforts to curb the political power of labor unions and prevent a tax increase. California’s campaign finance agency called it political "money laundering" and last month levied $1 million in fines in the case.

And still other Wellspring recipients train their sights on the judicial branch. The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) -- originally called Judicial Confirmation Network -- was started in 2004 to help build support for former President George W. Bush's federal court nominees. Now it works against Obama's judicial picks -- and Obama himself. According to Federal Election Commission records, JCN spent $571,000 in 2008 opposing Obama's election. JCN also runs ads benefiting conservative state court candidates. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the group spent more than $1 million airing ads against a Democratic state supreme court candidate in Michigan last year; its target, Bridget Mary McCormack, won despite that. It also spent $1 million on a lower court race – believed to be the first time dark money has been used in a trial court contest. 

As it happens, Neil Corkery is treasurer of JCN. Wellspring, run by his wife, gave the group and its affiliate, the Judicial Education Project, a total of more than $700,000 over a two-year period encompassing 2010 and 2011.  Continue Reading to Follow The Money