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Coast to Coast Lies 

Phony groups claim "local" status to pursue national political aims

Kaia Lenhart has been an expert on a lot of things in the last six years. In January of 1997, Lenhart led a grassroots effort in Montana against the Balanced Budget Amendment for Americans for Democratic Action. The next month, she was on the ground in New Jersey, coordinating the group's anti-Balanced Budget Amendment grassroots effort there. By June of 1998, Lenhart, then 27, was passing herself off to the media as a young Missourian fed up with the election process. As campaign manager for Missouri Voters for Clean Elections, she mustered the appropriate outrage for her fight for campaign finance reform. By November, she was an outraged Arizonan, leading the charge to pass a statewide ballot initiative for publicly funded campaigns as the political director of Arizonans for Clean Elections. Like the rest of the media, I bought the whole charade. When Democracy South, a seemingly independent North Carolina campaign reform group, sent me interesting statistics on political campaign spending in press releases a few years ago, I didn't think to question whether the stats were accurate or what the motivations of those who created them might be. I just printed them. So did the Charlotte Observer. The same statistics were distributed across the country by groups like Lenhart's led by professional grassroots activists who jetted across the nation, passing themselves off as locals.

After a tip from a reader who'd worked for the campaign finance reform movement, I began looking into these organizations. What I found has kept me up at night. Using similarly named groups in over a dozen states, a small, highly organized clique of for-hire activists created the illusion of a national groundswell for campaign finance reform, when in fact there wasn't one.

To prove their point these people needed facts, and so they created them. In a Lexis-Nexis search, the most quoted source in articles on campaign finance was the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP), which analyzed campaign contribution data from 40 states. On its board sat many of the same people who would later use the "independent" data it produced in their grassroots organizations in the states. Among those on the board were representatives of two of the four regional organizing centers that funneled money to groups like those run by Lenhart.

Around the same time NIMSP got its start, another supposedly independent group called the Institute for Public Accuracy also opened its doors. According to its website, "the Institute makes frequent communication possible between hundreds of independent researchers and journalists across the United States."

In pursuit of this goal, IPA blast-faxed and emailed press releases to thousands of editors and reporters across the country containing contact lists of "independent researchers" available for interview during the campaign finance reform battle. What these releases neglected to mention was that almost all of its "researchers" were members of the same elite group of activists-for-hire. Among them, of course, were Lenhart and others like her. In less than a year, Lenhart became a nationally respected campaign finance reform expert quoted in dailies from coast to coast.

Most of the dollars that created this illusion can be traced to the doorstep of one man. Between 1996 and 2001, wacky billionaire George Soros funneled tens of millions of dollars from two of his charitable foundations -- the Open Society Foundation and the Solidago Foundation -- in hundreds of five-digit donations through a half-dozen pass-through funds like the Proteus Fund and the Piper Fund. The money ultimately funded dozens of supposedly "local" grassroots reform groups like Lenhart's Missouri Voters for Clean Elections and Arizonans for Clean Elections.

Had Soros' groupies merely accomplished what their organizations described to the public -- banishing corporate special interest money from politics by convincing voters and legislatures to pass public campaign finance laws -- I probably wouldn't be writing about this. What they did, instead, was write a campaign finance reform law that bans issue ads by special interest groups two months before a general election, a law with fine print so onerous that both the Christian Coalition and the ACLU are pumping thousands of dollars into a legal battle to overturn it.

The Federal Elections Commission's legal counsel recently warned that under this law, entertainers like David Letterman and Jay Leno, who air jokes on political topics, may come under scrutiny for "electioneering" if they're not careful about what they say. As these and other frightening details about the censorship contained within the fine print of this bill continue to spill into the media, some of the members of Congress who voted for it are now admitting that they didn't actually read it first. If the public wanted it that bad, why bother?

It's time for another kind of campaign finance reform. Congress needs to turn the tables on these nonprofit groups that use their charitable foundation tax status for political gain. Like the politicians they've chastised, the public deserves to know where their money comes from.

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