Union-backed Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which spent more than $1 million on political advertisements targeting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a handful of state lawmakers, failed to file a mandatory tax return, the Center for Public Integrity has learned.
For failing to file returns with the IRS on time, the secretive, Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvanians for Accountability could be fined up to $50,000.
The IRS confirmed the agency had not received the group's tax filing — the kind of document that provides a key window into the inner workings of politically active nonprofit groups like Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which are becoming increasingly influential in state and national elections.
Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who represents Pennsylvanians for Accountability, acknowledged the nonprofit didn’t file its tax return on time. He said the group would soon be submitting documents to the IRS.
Bonin provided an unofficial copy to the Center for Public Integrity, which showed the group raised $1.23 million in its first year of existence. Most of the money came from labor unions.
Almost immediately after its formation in September 2012, Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which is organized as a “social welfare” group under Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, produced mailers critical of several Republicans running for re-election to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives.
The 501(c)(4) tax status allows organizations like Pennsylvanians for Accountability to lobby to advance a “social welfare” mission and engage in politics, so long as overt support of or opposition to candidates is not their primary purpose.
This tax status also generally allows these nonprofits to keep the names of their donors secret, unlike political action committees, which must disclose their funders. This has earned them the moniker “dark money.”
Such “dark money” nonprofits have been increasingly active in elections, thanks, in part, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, which allowed corporations, including certain nonprofit corporations, to bankroll political ads that call for the election or defeat of candidates.
One of the Republican lawmakers targeted by Pennsylvanians for Accountability was state Rep. Rick Saccone. The group’s mailers asserted that “our kids” weren’t Saccone’s “top priority” because he had supported cuts to education spending.
Saccone denounced the group for “trying their hardest to slander me” and persuade voters in his heavily Democratic district not to vote for him. He ultimately won by just 112 votes out of the nearly 29,000 votes cast.
The copy of Pennsylvanians for Accountability’s tax return for the first year of its existence showed the nonprofit spent about $475,000 in 2012 on political mailers and digital ads in nine state-level races in Pennsylvania, including Saccone’s.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability, it turned out, was just getting started.