The liberal League of Conservation Voters is fast becoming one of the nation’s strongest “dark money” forces — a realm conservative groups have typically dominated.
New documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters spent a record $36 million in 2012, of which more than 40 percent — nearly $15 million — came in the form of "direct and indirect political campaign activities."
That's up from about 25 percent in both 2010, when congressional midterm elections were held, and 2008, the last year when control of both Congress and the White House was at stake.
“There was a lot at stake last year on our issues, both on Capitol Hill and across the country,” said Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, which, as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit must annually file a tax return with the IRS.
The League’s involvement helped defend “our allies at the ballot box in the face of unprecedented spending from polluters,” Gohringer added.
While super PACs, candidates’ campaigns and traditional political action committees must regularly report their funders, the Federal Election Commission has interpreted the law to require politically active nonprofits to disclose only the names of donors who give for the specific purpose of “furthering” particular ads — something that rarely happens.
Repeatedly in 2012, the League of Conservation Voters told the FEC that all expenditures were paid for by money from its “general treasury funds.”
Little is known about the sources of the League of Conservation Voters’ cash — although, earlier this year, it got a boost at an annual fundraising gala that featured speeches by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Al Franken, D-Minn.
Gohringer said only that the League has financial backing from “more than [a] half-million supporters across the country.”
But a Center for Public Integrity review of IRS records show the League received substantial financial support last year from a nonprofit started by two of President Barack Obama's former aides, as well as nonprofits dedicated to advocating for “progressive” legislation and “clean energy.”
For instance, the Green Tech Action Fund — which describes itself as a "nonpartisan, not-for-profit grant-making organization" with the goal of spurring "big new markets for clean energy technologies" — contributed $2.6 million.
And The Advocacy Fund — which touts itself as a way to enable "progressive donors and activists to impact the legislative arena" — contributed $2 million. (Full disclosure: The related Tides Center has previously contributed to the Center for Public Integrity. A full list of the Center’s donors is available here.)
Meanwhile, Priorities USA, a Democratic-aligned nonprofit headed by former White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, gave $650,000 to the League of Conservation Voters in 2012, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.
Amy Fuerstenau, Green Tech Action Fund’s executive director, said her group contributed to the League because it helps the organization "in its mission to advance clean energy policy.”
Neither Burton nor representatives of The Advocacy Fund responded to requests for comment.
Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign finance reform group Democracy 21, says he's disturbed that groups on both sides of the partisan divide are uniting in their use of anonymous cash to bankroll political ads.
“We would like to see all 501(c) [nonprofits] get out of the business of making expenditures to influence campaigns,” he said.
But Gohringer, the League spokesman, doesn’t like that prescription.
“It’s unfortunate that groups like Crossroads GPS have given c4 organizations a bad name because 501(c)(4) advocacy organizations like LCV — as well as the Sierra Club, NRA, AARP and others — serve an important role in our democracy,” he said.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC ruling in 2010 and a related lower court ruling, nonprofits have gained more freedom to produce advertisements that target candidates without disclosing their donors.
Though Republican-aligned nonprofits have in recent years spent more money during recent election seasons, some liberal groups have been closing the gap. And the League of Conservation Voters is chief among them.
FEC records show that the League spent $10.8 million on what the agency calls “independent expenditures,” spending on activities such as TV ads, mailings or canvassers that expressly call for the election or defeat of federal candidates.
All of this money went into efforts designed to aid “pro-environmental” Democratic candidates.
No other Democratic-aligned nonprofit made more independent expenditures during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And the League has retained its preeminent position this year, as it poured more than $800,000 into efforts to boost Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, a longtime advocate against global warming, during Massachusetts' special U.S. Senate election.
By contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has reported spending about $200,000 on political ads this year to the FEC, while the conservative Crossroads GPS, which was co-founded by Karl Rove, has not spent a dime — although both groups significantly outspent the League of Conservation Voters in 2012.
Julie Patel contributed to this report.