Following The Money (Part 3)

The story of how an obscure tax-exempt organization sprang to life in 2006

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Before it emerged this year as a major financial backer of ballot initiatives on issues ranging from land use to end-of-life decisions, America At Its Best barely registered on the political landscape.

Until February 2006, America At Its Best operated under the name Virginia At Its Best. Formed in 2003 as a tax-exempt lobbying organization, it has never filed a federal income tax return, apparently because — until now — it had never collected more than $25,000 in a single year.
 
This year is a different story. Public records show that America At Its Best has collected more than $4 million in contributions – the vast majority of it from Americans for Limited Government, a tax-exempt organization in Chicago that’s chaired by Howard Rich, a libertarian political activist who lives in New York City. 
 
The money, in turn, has gone to support two of Rich’s pet political projects: takings initiatives and state spending limits that are typically billed as “Taxpayer Bill of Rights,” or TABOR, initiatives.
 
State campaign finance records show that America At Its Best has spent more than $2 million to push such measures in Idaho, Missouri, Michigan, and Nebraska.
 
In Nebraska, America At Its Best also spent $915,000 this year pushing a ballot initiative that would have generally required Nebraska patients to be given water and nutrition until death, campaign finance records show. But backers of the measure, which echoed the emotional 2005 debate over end-of-life decisions surrounding the Terri Schiavo case in Florida, failed to collect enough valid signatures to get it on the ballot in Nebraska this year.
 
In most of the states where America At Its Best has bankrolled initiative efforts, its sources of funds have been a mystery. Its Web site features a photo of a dusty country road and an American flag and states that the organization is “supported by donors from America,” adding: “We raise funds by using direct mail campaigns, website marketing, and personal outreach campaigns.”
 
But in Nebraska, which requires any out-of-state committees that give more than $10,000 to political campaigns to disclose their contributors, state campaign finance records show that America At Its Best has collected all of its funds this year from four sources:
 
  • more than $3.6 million from Americans for Limited Government.
  • $400,000 from the Fund for Democracy, a non-incorporated intermediary that shares Rich’s New York City address and describes itself as “a revocable trust dedicated to assisting citizens assert their constitutional rights.”
  • $50,000 from the Club for Growth State Action, a tax-exempt organization headed by Rich that, according to financial statements, “shares common management” with Americans for Limited Government and its affiliated foundation.
  • $100,000 from the National Taxpayers Union, a tax-exempt organization in Alexandria, Virginia, that lobbies for tax reform and repeal efforts.
  • The official address of America At Its Best, according to IRS and business records, is the home, in Fairfax, Virginia, of William A. Wilson. Wilson launched Virginia At Its Best in 2003 and is a director of Americans for Limited Government.
 
At least two other “At Its Best” groups have ties to Rich and his organizations. Colorado At Its Best, which this year has spent $812,000 on a judicial term-limit initiative in that state and given another $50,000 to California’s Protect Our Homes Coalition in support of a takings initiative there, lists Rich as a director. Another group, Arizona At Its Best, lists Rich as its chairman.
 
In state campaign finance records, America At Its Best lists a mailing address in Kalispell, Montana. Its Web site, however, lists an address in Boise, Idaho, that’s shared by This House is MY Home, which is leading the push in Idaho for Proposition 2, a ballot measure that would restrict eminent domain and regulatory takings.
 
Laird Maxwell, who is listed in public records as the chairman of America At Its Best, is the executive director of This House Is MY Home. He declined to discuss the activities of America At Its Best with the Center for Public Integrity.
 
In a telephone interview with the Center earlier this month, Maxwell called Proposition 2 a “citizens’ initiative.”
 
According to Idaho campaign finance records through October 10, however, America At Its Best and Rich’s Fund for Democracy have poured $412,000 into This House Is MY Home, accounting for more than 99 percent of its receipts.
 
This House Is MY Home reported $1,804 in other donations, including $50 from Maxwell.

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