Swing state voters in Virginia and Ohio last fall were bombarded with television advertisements encouraging them to "stand with coal" and "vote no on Obama's failing energy policy."
But the sponsor of these ads — a pro-business nonprofit advocacy group called the American Energy Alliance — says the messages weren’t designed to aid Republican Mitt Romney in his bid to unseat President Barack Obama.
In a new tax return filed Friday and first obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics, the American Energy Alliance, led by former Koch Industries lobbyist Thomas Pyle, told the Internal Revenue Service that it did not "engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office" last year.
The group made an even more explicit pledge to be nonpartisan when it applied for tax-exempt status in 2008, telling the IRS that it had "no interest in supporting the agenda or any particular political party or political candidate."
While it acknowledged “the possibility that some of AEA's publications and communications may be considered ‘political,’” the group asserted that it was a “nonpartisan policy-oriented organization,” not a “‘political’ organization.”
The new tax documents also show that American Energy Alliance spent more than $5 million on "media and advertising," with vendor Mentzer Media, a media buying firm that works primarily with Republicans, receiving $3.9 million of that amount.
The “stand with coal” ads cost at least $1.36 million, according to disclosures the American Energy Alliance filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Because these broadcast ads came within 60 days of the November election and mentioned the president, the American Energy Alliance was required to report the spots to the FEC as “electioneering communications” — a special type of issue-based advertising that comes with enhanced disclosure requirements.
The group also engaged in a host of other pre-election activities that often included battleground presidential states and attacked Obama.
Marcus Owens, an attorney who previously headed the IRS’ tax-exempt division, said the American Energy Alliance’s new filing “certainly raises a red flag.”
“It’s a politically active organization,” he said, adding that the pre-election advertisements were veiled in what “sounds like a lobbying message on its face.”
Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance, rejected accusations that his group behaved improperly.
Cole told the Center for Public Integrity that the ads were “designed to inform the American public about President Obama's energy policies… not his re-election efforts.”
“We could just as easily run those same ads today,” Cole continued, adding that all of the group’s ads are vetted by lawyers to “ensure that nothing we do runs afoul of federal election or tax laws.”
One element of the new IRS documents that’s for sure: The American Energy Alliance’s footprint has grown substantially. In all, the American Energy Alliance spent $7 million last year.
That's a nearly seven times what it spent in 2010 — and more than 300 percent above the roughly $1.7 million it spent during its inaugural year in 2008, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of IRS records.
It’s unclear who precisely has funded this surge, although the American Energy Alliance’s new annual report does show that just three donors — who each gave at least $1 million — accounted for three-fourths of the American Energy Alliance’s total $7.3 million haul last year.