BOB GARFIELD: Is it really that hard to figure out who’s behind a big political ad campaign? For instance, who are the people behind the Coalition to Protect Seniors, which produced this?
MAN: Gramps is sad. Obama cut 455 billion dollars from his Medicare. The last time they cut Medicare funding plans, the market bailed and his benefits were cut. Even I know that’s wrong. If your grandpa’s on one of these plans, I suggest you tell him to protect himself, and vote this November. I don't know what smells worse, my diaper or this new bill.
BOB GARFIELD: New York Times reporter Mike McIntire decided to find the Coalition to Protect Seniors, not necessarily as a journalist would, but just as an ordinary citizen would, limiting his sleuthing tools to his phone and his computer.
MIKE McINTIRE: The first stop that you would take nowadays would be the website for the group, and right away you would discover that there’s no names attached to it. There’s no real meaning contact information, no phone number, no explanation of how the group was formed or what their intentions are or who was behind it. You can email them. There’s an email address, which I took advantage of, and never got a response. The one other tidbit of information on there was an actual mailing address, which turned out to be a Mail Boxes, Etc. store. So looking at the website –
[BOB LAUGHS] - which is what, you know, the average person might do [LAUGHS] to begin this odyssey, gets you nowhere, which was pretty much what was intended, I believe.
BOB GARFIELD: You've got the website, you've got an email address [LAUGHS] and a mail drop in Wilmington. Where do you go next? You googled them, right?
MIKE McINTIRE: Yeah, oh sure, that’s one of the first things you would want to do. And you do that, and again you really don't find anything. So then you’re left having to take a little bit of a deeper scrub here of the – of this outfit to the extent that public records are available. The paper trail’s pretty thin. This group, however, does have one other type of a filing it has to do. They have to file records with the Federal Election Commission, which basically describe how much they're spending on these advertisements and where they're spending their money. And so, looking at those, I was able to figure out – you know, they have a couple of names on there, and one of them is a consulting firm in Florida that seemed to be related to the health care industry.
BOB GARFIELD: Probably just a coincidence.
MIKE McINTIRE: Could be, yeah. So I called the number for this particular consulting firm. And what was interesting is the name of the firm is the Fenwick Group, and when I called the number, a fellow picked up the phone and said “K & M Insurance.”
[BOB LAUGHING] And it turns out, you know, it’s a health insurance agency. And so, I told him I was looking for the Fenwick Group [LAUGHS] and he said, oh, that'll, be, you know, you have to talk to so-and-so. And –
[BOB LAUGHS] - I did eventually reach him. I got him on the phone, and he didn't deny that he’s the guy who was helping put these ads out there, but he said he was not a member of the coalition. And I asked him, could you get in touch with the coalition [LAUGHS] and have somebody call me back? And he said he would, and no one ever did. And that was really the end of the trail.
BOB GARFIELD: What is the state of the law to make it easier for us to follow the money?
MIKE McINTIRE: There are two federal agencies that have sway over this issue. One of them is the Federal Election Commission. The only requirement they have in this area is that if you’re one of these groups and you accept a donation which is intended to be used for a specific ad campaign, you know, close to an election, you’re supposed to disclose the name of the donor. These groups pretend none of it’s earmarked for specific things, and the Federal Election Commission has really not taken a hard look at that. The other agency is the Internal Revenue Service, and they really are the ones that I think are in the best position at this point to impose some sort of standards on many of the nonprofit groups that we're talking about, because these groups, you know, in exchange for getting the benefit of not having to pay taxes on, on their revenue, they're supposed to abide by certain rules, and one of them is that you can't spend the majority of your time engaging in a political activity. And some of these groups seem to do nothing but that. You know, if the IRS chose to take a hard look at just what some of these groups are up to, they could at least make a case that some of these groups are in violation of tax laws.
BOB GARFIELD: If you are an interest group and you are noble of purpose, why would you have to pretend to be something you’re not and to spend money under the guise of some disinterested party?
MIKE McINTIRE: You know, many large donors are concerned about a backlash against them. The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, which has collected tens of millions of dollars anonymously from its members for ad campaigns, they point to instances during the health care debate in which they say some of their donors, when the names came out, were accosted at the homes of their CEOs and there were protests outside their companies, and they were the victims of orchestrated campaigns online to smear them. They argue that free speech doesn't necessarily have to come with a name attached.
BOB GARFIELD: The Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, does that have any influence on the marketplace that we're discussing now?
MIKE McINTIRE: It certainly has emboldened many groups that have been doing this all along. It essentially, you know, allows corporations to not just issue ads but for the first time expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate, which is something they couldn't do in the past. What’s interesting about that ruling though is that the majority of the Supreme Court in passing down this ruling seemed to feel that there already was proper disclosure requirements in place, and they suggested that that’s a good idea. But it’s interesting because when you really read the comments of the majority opinion, they seem to believe, mistakenly, that there already are provisions in place to allow for the identity of donors, and there’s not.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mike. Well, for me and for all of us here at the Coalition for Media Nirvana -
MIKE McINTIRE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - thanks so much for joining us.
MIKE McINTIRE: Can I join?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] You've got to find us first. Mike McIntire is a reporter for The New York Times.