Lisa Graves madisonian

Lisa Graves is executive director of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy. The CMD was founded in 1993 to monitor how public relations is used to manipulate public opinion.

Right-wingers have been chortling over an article by the conservative Wisconsin Reporter — part of the national Watchdog.org network — that accuses the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive group that seeks to expose "dark money" in politics, of engaging in the very behavior that it denounces.

Wisconsin Reporter noted that in recent years CMD has received $520,000 from the Schwab Charitable Fund, a "donor-advised fund" that contributors use to keep their donations to nonprofits anonymous. Other CMD donors are listed on the group's website

WR suggested CMD is playing by different rules than the ones it wishes to impose on conservative groups:

"...CMD and allied organizations have worked feverishly to suggest the practice is shady — and limited to conservatives. As recently as Monday, CMD attacked the practice on its own website."

Indeed, in a blog post earlier this week, CMD staffer Brendan Fischer specifically chided Watchdog for receiving money through Donor Trust, a similar type of fund, which he called "the dark money ATM of the right."

Asked about the Schwab money, CMD executive director Lisa Graves had a simple, if curious, explanation.

"This is a grant we received from an unknown donor, we literally don't know the name of the man or woman who gave the funds," she said, explaining the donation came in two separate checks of $260,000 in 2011 and 2012.

That is fundamentally different, she says, than the practice of groups who know their donors but will not disclose them to the public. 

So she really has no idea who was responsible for 30 percent of her organization's budget in both 2011 and 2012?

"I swear on a stack of Bibles — or all religious texts," she said.

She said she wished she'd had the chance to tell Wisconsin Reporter that.

"If they'd actually bothered to do the journalistic end of things, I actually would have told them I don't know who the money is from," she said.

Graves said the infusion of anonymous dollars had been helpful to the group during a slowdown in fundraising that she partially attributed to her cutting back work time to deal with a bout with cancer, from which she has since fully recovered.

She nevertheless acknowledged her explanation likely would not have greatly altered the story that the conservative site wrote. 

"Given that our story was based solely on public financial documents, we didn't need to call Lisa Graves to verify this," said Tori Richards, the Los Angeles-based reporter for Watchdog.org, the conservative network that Wisconsin Reporter is a part of, who penned the article. "We didn't say it was bad to take anonymous money — it's legal. But why is it bad when others do it but totally OK when Lisa Graves does it?"

The Schwab contribution was not listed among the many donors on the group's website, a point Wisconsin Reporter highlights as running counter to CMD’s principles of openness.

Both Graves and Fischer have essentially argued that Wisconsin Reporter is missing the point. They claim CMD is not focused on exposing the finances of any nonprofit, only those that are engaged in electioneering or lobbying.

The organizations it targets include groups such as the Club for Growth, which has spent millions of dollars on TV ads attacking or praising candidates before elections, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, which organizes conferences in which corporations and legislators develop "model legislation" for states around the country.

Pressed on whether her group only focuses on "dark money" on the right side of the spectrum, Graves points out that her group is critical of Democrats on a number of policy issues, but also says that the dark money game is currently lopsided in favor of conservatives, particularly in Wisconsin.

"We looked quite closely at Wisconsin coming into the 2012 race to try to see if there were comparable examples of ads (from the left and the right)," she says."I would have to say that it seems like there's a lot more money on the right that's unaccounted for."

As I've reported before, the big liberal spenders in Wisconsin seem to be less resistant to disclosure than conservative groups.

The most significant outside liberal group, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, regularly advocates for candidates directly and therefore is obligated to disclose its donors, most of whom are labor unions. 

The biggest conservative groups, such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth, avoid disclosure by running "issue ads," which are intended to damage or boost a candidate but do not explicitly urge viewers to vote a certain way.

While Graves says her group is open to examining dark money in all of its forms, the group does not pay as much attention to the dark money that exists on the left.

For instance, while its database of political organizations, SourceWatch, includes lengthy analysis of the money behind Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supported Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, its two-sentence description of the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, does not reference its status as a super PAC or discuss its funding.

And One Wisconsin Now, a small operation run by former Democratic operatives that digs up dirt on Republicans and advocates for student loan debt reform, is absent from its database.

In 2010, One Wisconsin Now joined Club for Growth in a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board to prevent the implementation of a rule that would have forced groups that disseminate messages bashing or praising candidates in the months preceding an election to disclose their donors. Graves said she was unfamiliar with One Wisconsin Now’s fundraising practices.

But Graves highlights instances the group has gone after left-leaning groups. SourceWatch, for instance, includes an entry describing Patriot Majority, a union-backed dark money group that ran ads last year supporting Democrats.  

And, she pointed out, the organization has penned a number of articles giving President Obama grief for his campaign’s pursuit of high-dollar donors. For instance, an article by Fischer last year about the presidential race displayed a view of politics that is common among progressives: For the GOP, corporate money is the spouse to which it is fully committed, while for Democrats it is a home-wrecking mistress they can't resist.

“(W)hile Obama's rhetoric on campaign finance is a far cry from Romney's "corporations are people, my friend" line about the Citizens United case, both presidential candidates are playing the same game of chasing big money to win the White House,” he wrote.

Editor's Note: This article incorrectly reported that the Center for Media & Democracy did not have an entry on its website describing Patriot Majority, a dark money group backed by unions that supports Democrats. 

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