Great Schools Massachusetts, the ballot committee advocating for the measure to permit more charter schools, has purchased $2.3 million in television advertisements during the Olympics according to the Boston Herald's Kathleen McKiernan. Massachusetts requires that organizations list their top five donors who exceed $5,000.00, so let’s fast forward through the pro-charter ad and see who is putting up that $2.3 million. Here is a screen shot of the disclaimer:
The first thing we see is that the ad was paid for by Great Schools Massachusetts, a ballot committee registered with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. The top five contributors to the ballot committee are Great Schools for Massachusetts; Education Reform Now Advocacy; Expanding Educational Opportunities; Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy; and Strong Economy for Growth. So now we need to figure out who they are and if the money behind them is dark, gray, or transparent.
Great Schools for Massachusetts. Note the “for” and the appearance on the contributor list, suggesting it is a related but different organization than the charter committee. Looking through the OCPF listing for recently field committees, we don’t see Great Schools for Massachusetts listed as a ballot committee or a PAC. There is a Great Schools for Massachusetts listed in the Secretary of State’s lobbying records. Its entire expenditure of $84,635.00 for the period from January 1, 2016 to June 30, 2016 was for public relations expenses. One of its lobbyists is Will Keyser of Keyser Public Strategies, a key strategist for Governor Charlie Baker who is also heading up the pro-charter efforts. Maybe there is a 501(c)(4) organization, but if so it isn’t listed yet. We’ll score that money as dark.
Education Reform Now Advocacy. ERN funds the dark money operation Democrats for Education Reform. One example of how it operates appears in ERNA’s 2013 Form 990 tax return, Part I-C (e) (and this is the language from the tax form) “amount of political contributions received and promptly directly delivered to a separate political organization” and that amount is $1,695,000.00 to DFER IEC P.O. Box 140387, Boston, MA. That money was intended to support the mayoral candidacy of John Connolly. But who was it that contributed the nearly $1.7 million that was “received and promptly and directly delivered” to DFER Massachusetts? The form 990 won’t tell you because ERNA is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and thus can keep its contributors anonymous. However, the Center for Media and Democracy reports that ERN’s board “consists almost entirely of Wall Streeters who made their fortunes through financial groups and hedge funds.” There is no telling which financier sent his money to ERN which then promptly and directly sent it to Great Schools MA. We’ll score that money as dark.
Expanding Educational Opportunities. This group is listed at the OCPF as a ballot committee. The only report on file is an Initial Report showing that from 11/5/2014-7/1/2016 the group received $0.00 and expended $0.00. We’ll score that money as dark.
Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy. FESA Advocacy is a 501(c)(4) related to the 501(c)(3) Families for Excellent Schools Inc. Both of these organizations are listed in the Secretary of State’s lobbying database, and both are represented, among others, by Mr. Keyser. There is also a Families for Excellent Schools PAC listed with OCPF, which as of July 31, 2016 had reported $0.00 receipts and $0.00 expenditures. FES is another dark money Wall Street organization, but we do know that its Massachusetts startup operations for the past several years have been funded by Strategic Grant Partners, a 501(c)(3) maintained by several Massachusetts billionaires and millionaires. We’ll score the FESA money as dark.
Strong Economy for Growth. As I’ve noted before, Strong Economy for Growth and its related organization Strong Economy for Massachusetts are active Republican dark money operations, having supported Richard Tisei in Massachusetts, Scott Brown in New Hampshire, and it was the largest contributor in 2015 to Great Schools MA when it was known as Public Charter Schools for Massachusetts. You can learn more about Strong Economy here and here. This organization is a 501(c)(4). We’ll score the SEG money as dark.
And the last line of the TV ad disclaimer is “for more information, go to ocpf.us.” Don’t bother. Ballot committees don’t have to file a report again until September.
The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported about opaque entities like those we’ve met here that “There is no requirement that the names of these entities reflect their actual purpose or interests, and many use generic or even misleading names that obscure the nature of their funding.” Also, Brennan reports, the politically savvy operatives backing these organizations use positive sounding local names in recognition that if the true source of the funding was known, voters would consider that information and be less likely to respond positively to the ads.
This is our campaign finance farce-ocracy at work, and it’s dark.
Louis D. Brandeis: "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."