Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Republican Super-PAC Revs Up for House Immigration Battle

| Wed Jul. 3, 2013 8:43 AM PDT

As the immigration reform battle moves to the House of Representatives, a Republican super-PAC backing comprehensive reform is gearing up for a bruiser of a fight.

In an interview, Charlie Spies, who co-founded the Republicans for Immigration Reform super-PAC with former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, said his group is focused on two sets of House Republicans: those who are on the fence about reform, and those who support a comprehensive immigration reform bill like the one passed by 68 senators—including 14 Republicans—last week. Republicans for Immigration Reform, Spies says, plans to target constituents who support reform in select Congressional districts and channel that support into the offices of their member of Congress. The point is to amplify grassroots support for comprehensive reform, giving cover to lawmakers who support reform and nudging those on the fence to get onboard with a comprehensive bill.

At the same time Gutierrez will continue a media blitz that's seen him on most major TV networks and quoted in national newspapers chiding his fellow Republicans for not embracing reform. "We'll be very actively engaged both from sort of a top-down and bottom-up approach of showing support for reform to Republican members," Spies says.

It's a strategy, he adds, taken from the playbook of the activists on the other side of the debate. Throughout the immigration reform fight, hardline anti-immigration groups have consistently picked out reform opponents and urged them to call and email their lawmakers to reject a comprehensive immigration bill.

On the fundraising side of things, Spies says Republicans for Immigration Reform has so far generated plenty of excitement—but little so far in the way of big checks. Many donors are still burned out from the 2012 election cycle. Or they're waiting for the 2014 cycle to begin in earnest before they starting cutting checks again. "People are holding off," Spies says. "They're saying 'we'll send in money later this year.' And so in terms of getting checks in the door, it's been slow. In terms of level of enthusiasm, it's been strong."

As the New York Times reports, a number of big-money players are plunging into the immigration fray to help get a bill passed. Those groups include the American Action Network, a dark-money nonprofit based in Washington; Americans for a Conservative Direction, another nonprofit run by GOP fundraiser extraordinaire Haley Barbour with ties to Mark Zuckerberg and Joe Green's FWD.us group; and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Here's more from the Times:

But many of the most powerful and well-financed forces in the party are moving to provide cover for the Florida senator and Republicans like him who are pushing to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

Their message: if we ever want to take back the White House, we have to stop devouring our own.

As the party assesses its chances for the 2016 presidential campaign, many Republican strategists believe that they need as robust a primary field as possible, with more than just one or two viable potential contenders.

A messy fight over a subject as touchy as illegal immigration is a prospect many Republican leaders are eager to avoid, especially since three of their best hopes for 2016 are closely tied to the debate: Mr. Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who is expected to play a vital role once the House starts debating the issue next week.

All these efforts lead up to a critical meeting on July 10. That's when, in the basement of the Capitol, House Republicans will meet to begin deciding what to do with the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate. The super-PACs and nonprofits wading into the fray are betting that their ads and lobbying will embolden pro-reform Republicans for what's sure to be a bitter fight ahead.

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Ohio Joins the War on Women, Redefines Pregnancy

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 7:21 AM PDT

In the race to cut off women's access to reproductive health services, Ohio appears to be pulling even with Texas. In the Lone Star State, Gov. Rick Perry is calling a special session to pass the antiabortion bill that was dramatically filibustered by state Sen. Wendy Davis. Not to be outdone, Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich on Sunday night signed a new, $62 billion* state budget that includes some of the most severe abortion restrictions in the country.

Kasich's budget, as the Toledo Blade reports, prohibits publicly funded hospitals from entering into so-called emergency care transfer agreements with nearby abortion clinics. Clinics need such agreements to care for patients with complications, and of the 12 clinics that provide abortions in Ohio, many may be forced to shut down as a result.

Another provision in Kasich's budget requires that doctors who provide abortions perform a fetal ultrasound and require the mother to listen to or see the heartbeat. Doctors who fail to do so could be prosecuted. The budget redefines a fetus as "developing from the moment of conception" rather than when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. (Most fertilized eggs leave the body before implanting, meaning many women who were not actually pregnant would now be considered to be have been carrying a "fetus" in Ohio.) 

Kasich's budget also sends Planned Parenthood to the end of the line to receive state funding for family planning services, effectively removing $1.4 million in funding. So-called crisis pregnancy centers, which do not provide abortions and have been criticized for providing inaccurate information, will now get state funding.

This isn't a complete surprise, as Kasich has always been a pro-life Republican. Yet a more complex political calculus is at play too: For months the governor has been advocated accepting Obamacare money to expand Medicaid in Ohio, and conservatives have savaged him for it. In the new budget, he line-item vetoed a provision that sought to block him from adding people to the Medicaid rolls. By allowing the antiabortion provisions, Kasich avoided yet another brawl with tea partiers.

Kasich is up for reelection in 2014, when he'll face Democrat Ed FitzGerald. By signing the new abortion restrictions into law, Kasich can expect to be, along with Perry, a top target of the "war on women" fury that was so effective in helping Democrats in 2012.

* Correction: The budget signed on Sunday by Gov. John Kasich totaled $62 billion, not $62 million.

Poof! The IRS Scandal Evaporates

| Tue Jun. 25, 2013 8:30 AM PDT

Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to turn the IRS mess into a full-fledged political scandal, charging that President Obama or his White House or at least liberal IRS staffers deliberately tried to punish tea partiers and other conservative outfits. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) & Co. have come up empty-handed. A Treasury Department inspector general found no evidence of political influence or bias. The head of the IRS division in question in Cincinnati identified himself to investigators as a "conservative Republican" and said politics played no role in their vetting decisions. And now it turns out, as the Associated Press reported, the IRS also singled out for extra scrutiny groups applying for nonprofit status with "progressive, "occupy," and "Israel" in their name. That is, liberal outfits were targeted, too. Oops.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee have obtained a list of group names IRS staffers used when applying extra scrutiny to applications for nonprofit status. This list of words to look out for also included "Medical Marijuana," "Occupied Territory Advocacy," "Healthcare legislation," "Paying National Debt," and "Green Energy Organizations." That AP reports that the IRS used those assorted terms from August 2010 through April 2013 to target applications for special review. It is unclear how many progressive or Occupy groups received additional attention from the IRS, or if those groups faced the sort of delays experienced by dozens of conservative groups did.

But this list shows that IRS employees weren't only looking for conservative buzz words as they examined political nonprofit groups; they were on the watch for groups of all political stripes.

This IRS affair began in May when a top agency official—who was later put on leave—apologized for her staffers having targeted tea party groups. The revelation sent Washington into a frenzy, leading to a spate of hearings, hand-wringing by congressional Democrats and Republicans, and the resignation of then-acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller.

Miller's replacement, current acting commissioner Danny Werfel, ordered a halt to the use of these additional watchwords, which were found on so-called Be on the Lookout, or BOLO, lists. (IRS officials had previously ordered their underlings to stop using "tea party" and "patriots.") "There was a wide-ranging set of categories and cases that spanned a broad spectrum" on the BOLO lists, Werfel recently told reporters. Werfel described some of the words on those lists as "inappropriate."

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are fighting over the significance of the latest revelations. From the AP:

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the ways and means panel, said he was writing a letter to J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general whose audit in May detailed IRS targeting of conservatives, asking why his report did not mention other groups that were targeted.

"The audit served as the basis and impetus for a wide range of congressional investigations and this new information shows that the foundation of those investigations is flawed in a fundamental way,’’ Levin said.

Republicans said there was a distinction. A statement by the GOP staff of House ways and means said, "It is one thing to flag a group, it is quite another to repeatedly target and abuse conservative groups."

George’s report criticized the IRS for using "inappropriate criteria" to identify tea party and other conservative groups. It did not mention more liberal organizations, but in response to questions from lawmakers at congressional hearings, George said he had recently found other lists that raised concerns about other "political factors" he did not specify.

An IRS spokeswoman said that George, the Treasury Department inspector general, is reviewing how much the IRS scrutinized other groups.

So is it case closed on the IRS debacle? Not yet. The agency still needs to explain why its staffers singled out groups in this way, and how it further intends to streamline the vetting process. But is this a liberal political conspiracy? Sure doesn't look like it.

6 Mind-Blowing Stats on How 1 Percent of the 1 Percent Now Dominate Our Elections

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 12:13 PM PDT

Here's a statistic that should jolt you awake like black coffee with three shots of espresso dropped in: In the 2012 election cycle, 28 percent of all disclosed donations—that's $1.68 billion—came from just 31,385 people. Think of them as the 1 percenters of the 1 percent, the elite of the elite, the wealthiest of the wealthy.

That's the blockbuster finding in an eye-popping new report by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan transparency advocate. The report's author, Lee Drutman, calls the 1 percent of the 1 percent "an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States." This rarefied club of donors, Drutman found, worked in high-ranking corporate positions (often in finance or law). They're clustered in New York City and Washington, DC. Most are men. You might've heard of some of them: casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Texas waste tycoon Harold Simmons, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg

Those are a few of the takeaways from Sunlight's report. Here are six more statistics (including charts) giving you what you need to know about the wealthy donors who dominate the political money game—and the lawmakers who rely on them.

(1) The median donation from the 1 percent of the 1 percent was $26,584. As the chart below shows, that's more than half the median family income in America.

Economic Policy Institute

(2) The 28.1 percent of total money from the 1 percent of the 1 percent is the most in modern history. It was 21.8 percent in 2006, and 20.5 percent in 2010.

Sunlight Foundation

(3) Megadonors are very partisan. Four out of five 1-percent-of-the-1-percent donors gave all of their money to one party or the other.

Sunlight Foundation

(4) Every single member of the House or Senate who won an election in 2012 received money from the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

Orham Cam/Shutterstock

(5) For the 2012 elections, winning House members raised on average $1.64 million, or about $2,250 per day, during the two-year cycle. The average winning senator raised even more: $10.3 million, or $14,125 per day.

Dawid Konopka/Shutterstock

(6) Of the 435 House members elected last year, 372—more than 85 percent—received more from the 1 percent of the 1 percent than they did from every single small donor combined.

Sunlight Foundation

So what are we to make of the rise of the 1 percent of the 1 percent? Drutman makes a point similar to what I reported in my recent profile of Democratic kingmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg: We're living in an era when megadonors exert control over who runs for office, who gets elected, and what politicians say and do. "And in an era of unlimited campaign contributions," Drutman writes, "the power of the 1 percent of the 1 percent only stands to grow with each passing year."

Obama Finally—Finally!—Picks 2 Nominees for the Federal Election Commission

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

After years of nudging and complaining from good-government types, President Obama finally has begun the process of making some changes over at the Federal Election Commission, the nation's beleaguered campaign watchdog. Last week, Obama nominated Ann Ravel, the feisty chairwoman of California's Fair Political Practices Commission, and Lee Goodman, a DC-based attorney at the firm LeClairRyan.

On its face, this is good news. All five commissioners currently at the FEC (there are usually six; one commissioner, Cynthia Bauerly, resigned in February) are working past their term's expiration date, because Obama and the Congress have not put forward any new nominees. The entire leadership of the FEC, in other words, should've been replaced months or years ago. Ravel and Goodman must still be nominated by the Senate, but if confirmed, they would be the first new commissioners to arrive at the FEC since Obama became president.

Progressive groups that oppose super-PACs and want less big money in politics cheered Obama's nominations but urged him to do more to reshuffle the FEC's lineup. "The process of fixing the FEC needs to begin with President Obama nominating and the Senate confirming a full, new complement of six commissioners," Democracy 21, a pro-regulation group, said in a statement.

The FEC is not only dogged by commissioners serving on borrowed time. Critics of the commission—which, by design, features six commissioners, usually three left-leaning and three right-leaning—say it is Exhibit A in regulatory gridlock. Here's what I wrote in 2011 about the FEC:

…During the George W. Bush era, GOP leaders packed the commission with a trio of conservative ideologues, and today the FEC epitomizes gridlock. Between 2003 and 2008, the commission deadlocked on about 1 percent of its enforcement actions, according to an analysis by Public Citizen (PDF); the numbers spiked to 16 percent and 11 percent in 2009 and 2010. Scott Thomas, a former Democratic FEC chairman, says the GOP members increasingly clash even with the commission's own legal staff. "For almost the entire history of the FEC, the commissioners were open to receiving recommendations from the staff," Thomas says. "Now they are being stopped cold by those three commissioners." The leader of the FEC's conservative clique is Donald McGahn, a shaggy-haired attorney (known to play the guitar while prepping for case rulings) who opposes just about all campaign-finance laws. He previously was counsel to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was convicted by a Texas jury last fall for laundering corporate donations. (McGahn did not respond to a request for comment.)

So what do we know about Obama's nominees?

In Ravel, left-leaning groups have an ally. As the head of California's election watchdog, the FPPC, she made a name for herself by aggressively investigating the source(s) of $11 million in secret donations made to influence two contentious ballot propositions in 2012. (That investigation remains underway.) As I reported, this particular FPPC probe, prompted by Ravel, is perhaps the most worrisome to conservatives because it could lift the veil on the web of nonprofit groups and donors shuffling dark money around the country. "This case has got very, very deep and significant implications," one conservative lobbyist told me.

Goodman, on the other hand, comes at the money-in-politics issue from a different angle. A supporter of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, Goodman recently argued—and ultimately lost—a case named United States v. Danielczyk that would've reversed the long-standing ban on corporations giving money directly to candidates.

A mighty high hurdle awaits both Ravel and Goodman: the Senate. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, is a fierce enemy of campaign finance laws, and it's no secret that the road to confirmation for any FEC nominee runs through him. If he opts not to block either Ravel or Goodman, then there is hope for fresh faces at the FEC. If he does, it could be back to square one.

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