2015 Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

‘Dark Money’ in America

Rachel Baye, Michael Beckel, Jared Bennett, Reity O'Brien, Julie Patel, Chris Zubak-Skees

The Center for Public Integrity

Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

With these articles, Center for Public Integrity reporters have advanced the public’s understanding of political “dark money” — the vast sums of secret cash being funneled into opaque organizations that attempt to influence U.S. elections. These groups have proliferated in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, and the Center for Public Integrity has been at the forefront in exposing this shadowy new world.

Our stories successfully broke news online and provided ongoing watchdog coverage. And they repeatedly leveraged digital tools and platforms to engage and inform audiences.

Our work combined data journalism techniques with shoe-leather reporting. Document-savvy journalists dug into tax filings, corporate records and campaign finance reports, while interviewing dozens of sources. The resulting investigations drove the money-in-politics conversation and helped foster an online community knowledgeable about this surge in secretive spending.

In “Hobbled IRS can’t stem ‘dark money’ flow,” reporter Julie Patel executed a deep-dive investigation into the Internal Revenue Service and showed the agency — which has been grappling with a decimated staff and limited resources — effectively lost whatever nerve it had to regulate politically active nonprofits after the tea party scandal exploded. The result of this paralysis: Mysterious political spending continued unabated through midterm elections, as most nonprofits are not required to publicly disclose their donors as political action committees are.

Slate political reporter Dave Weigel praised this investigation for stepping back and describing “what the IRS is supposed to do.” And Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote that this “exhaustive study by the Center for Public Integrity” clearly demonstrated how the agency was intimidated into “allowing bogus nonprofits to funnel cash into election campaigns.”

We monitored the flow of mystery money on both the left and right ahead of the 2014 election and profiled several of the most active “dark money” organizations. One such group was the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which supported the re-election of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. This nonprofit exemplified what may soon become the new normal in politics: an essentially anonymous spending spree overseen by a former top aide of the politician benefiting from the advertising blitz.

In “Flush with mystery money, Kentucky nonprofit haunts Grimes’ Senate bid,” reporter Michael Beckel wrote the definitive account of this group — which spent more than $14 million on ads that either praised McConnell or attacked his Democrat opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. That was nearly as much money as Grimes’ campaign spent during the race. The article was later cited in an IRS complaint filed against the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition by the watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Reporters Reity O’Brien and Rachel Baye, meanwhile, documented the rise of these mysterious groups in state-level races.

In “Secretive nonprofits flourished — and succeeded — in 2014 state elections,” O’Brien discovered that groups that didn’t disclose their donors were more successful with TV ads than other political advertisers. And in “Secretive group destroys candidates’ chances, leaves few fingerprints,” Baye chronicled the brute tactics of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America — which has parachuted into otherwise small-dollar races near to the end of elections and bought up TV ads that accuse candidates of siding with “baby killers” and sexual predators.

Moreover, in “Rapper-backed group illustrates blind spot in political transparency,” Beckel examined how limited liability companies could become the next frontier of political “dark money.” This investigation highlighted how LLCs may be used to shield the identities of donors to super PACs — a prospect that some members of the Federal Election Commission, the nation’s top election regulator, found troubling. Ann Ravel, the Democrat who currently serves as the commission’s chairwoman, worried aloud that this was a “situation where we have a failure to require important disclosure that the public’s entitled to have.”

Interactive charts and timelines integrated into the stories were key to communicating critical information to our readers. The interactive items — which were produced by Center for Public Integrity news developer Chris Zubak-Skees and digital editor Jared Bennett — helped readers engage with the data and the findings more easily. Publishing online also allowed us to easily showcase YouTube videos of campaign ads and annotated primary source documents that we had uploaded to DocumentCloud. What’s more, the stories fostered important dialogue on social media and in user-generated chats. We know readers would not have delved into the numbers or arcane topics as much had we presented them in print only.

The stories may also not have been circulated as widely without the online platform. Not only did we publish them on our website — where they were optimized for desktop, tablet and mobile readers — but they were also published in full by other online partners, including the Daily Beast, Lexington Herald-Leader, NBC News, Slate, TIME and Yahoo News. In addition, the stories were cited by a wide range of top media outlets from the Washington Post to ProPublica to Politico.

Politically active nonprofits have emerged as major players in both elections and public policy battles. Our reporting has helped people understand the forces at work in these organizations and how the government regulates this new territory as groups that don’t publicly disclose their donors take on unprecedented political roles.