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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"Green Billionaire" Launches Big-Money Blitz Against Virginia GOPer

| Mon Aug. 5, 2013 10:00 AM EDT
Tom Steyer.

Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund manager turned climate activist and big-spending political player, already has one notch in his belt, helping elect Massachusetts' Ed Markey to the US Senate earlier this year. Now he's aiming for notch No. 2: pummeling Republican Ken Cuccinelli and electing Cuccinelli's opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Virginia's next governor.

Politico reports that Steyer's super-PAC, NextGen Climate Action, will run its first wave of TV ads in Virginia this week. NextGen and its consultants are also laying the groundwork for a statewide get-out-the-vote effort this fall targeting Virginians who care about the climate. GOTV efforts are especially important in this year's Virginia gubernatorial race because it is an off-year election and the year after a presidential race. Voters are following politics less closely, and turnout is expected to be low.

That Steyer would choose the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe race as his next target is no surprise. Cuccinelli, who is currently the state attorney general, is one of the loudest members of the GOP's chorus of climate change deniers. He has frequently attacked the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to curb greenhouse gases, and he led a witch hunt into the research of prominent climate scientist Michael Mann, a professor at Penn State University.

If Steyer's goal is to use his wealth and today's lax campaign finance rules to force candidates to discuss climate change and to oust those candidates who don't take it seriously, then attacking Cuccinelli is a no-brainer. "I would say there's a very clear choice on this topic between these two candidates, and I think the citizens of Virginia deserve to understand both what the truth is and what the implications of that are," Steyer told Politico.

Here's more on Steyer's big Virginia blitz:

While Steyer's first overt move in Virginia comes in the form of paid television advertising, he told Politico repeatedly that he views get-out-the-vote efforts as a better overall investment, along with digital advertising and other, less-traditional independent expenditure methods.

"Our going-in assumption is that the bulk of what we're doing is field—is enabling the citizens to literally speak to each other," Steyer said. Referring to the Prop. 39 fight, he explained: "Our sense in California was that technology enabled a lot of viewers to just skip our ads."

He added on a wry note: "The other thing that's true, as I'm sure you know, is the traditional way for consultants to get paid is through a percentage of the TV buy…So it's like you say, you know, 'There's a flood in Afghanistan.' And they'll say, 'We need a bigger TV buy.'"

The billionaire freely acknowledged that he was a newcomer to Virginia, but in a whirlwind tour of Richmond last week, he introduced himself to a number of prominent figures in the state political and clean-energy communities.

Steyer met in Virginia's capital city Thursday with a collection of climate activists and another group of about 20 energy executives. One of those executives—Mike Healy of Skyline Innovations, who invited Steyer to Richmond in the first place—delivered a letter signed by several colleagues asking that Steyer use his financial firepower in the governor’s race.

The consensus in that meeting, Steyer said, was that the advanced-energy sector could pack a much bigger punch in state politics if it were better organized politically and more deliberate about pushing the message that green policies can translate into jobs. (And, it goes without saying, if a deep-pocketed out-of-state figure would be willing to deliver a nuclear-level strike against a politician like Cuccinelli.)

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Raised Big Money for Obama? You Get an Ambassadorship!

| Mon Jul. 29, 2013 10:03 AM EDT
Matthew Barzun, Obama's national fundraising guru, will become the US' ambassador to the United Kingdom.

When he first ran for president, Barack Obama pledged to...well, you know the story. No more politics as usual, curbing the clout of lobbyists and special interests, the most transparent administration ever, etc., etc. But there's one time-honored, you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours Washington tradition that Obama has been more than happy to continue: Rewarding major campaign fundraisers with plum gigs as ambassadors.

At last count, 26 of Obama's existing and nominated ambassadors had raised money for the president and the Democrats. Together, those fundraisers scared up at least $13.6 million for Obama's campaigns, the Democratic Party, and other Democratic congressional candidates, according to Bloomberg News.

One in three of Obama's diplomatic appointees have been political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association. That's right on track with his predecessors going back to Ronald Reagan.

These fundraisers aren't getting shipped off to far-flung locales. Instead, they can look forward to a few years of fine dining and nightly parties. For instance, there's Matthew Barzun, who chaired Obama's team of fundraisers, or "finance committee," who was named US ambassador the UK. Rufus Gifford, the chief fundraiser for Obama's 2012 campaign and his second inauguration, will head off to Denmark. A slew of other regional fundraisers have also scored high-profile ambassadorships: Alexa Wesner (Austria), Denise Bauer (Belgium), John Emerson (Germany), Kirk Wagar (Singapore), and Jim Costos (Spain). A White House spokesman told Bloomberg that each of Obama's ambassador picks was qualified for the job, adding, "None of them was chosen because they supported the president's campaign and none of them should have been ruled out just because they did."

Early in his first term, Obama acknowledged that "there probably will be some" political types serving in diplomatic posts. But the rainmaker-to-ambassador pipeline has continued enough under Obama's watch that the foreign service association last year urged him to cut down as naming political allies to diplomatic positions. "Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto 'three-year rental' of ambassadorships," the group's governing board said in a statement. "The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America's important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades."

Mitch McConnell Has a Tea Party Challenger

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 12:03 PM EDT

In the past month, Mitch McConnell and his allies have gone after Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the the Senate minority leader's likely Democratic challenger in 2014. His campaign bashed Grimes immediately after she entered the race, saying she was "not ready for prime time" and calling her a "left wing mime." More recently, a pro-McConnell super-PAC said it was spending $270,000 on ads attacking Grimes.

But the McConnell camp is getting ahead of itself. McConnell now has a challenger for the GOP nomination, a businessman and tea partier named Matt Bevin. An investor who also owns a 181-year-old bell-making company, Bevin plans to announce his candidacy on Wednesday, followed by a three-day tour of Kentucky. A group named Matt Bevin for Senate has reportedly reserved TV time in several Kentucky media markets.

Here's more from Politico:

While the all-but-announced McConnell challenger is believed to be wealthy enough to commit some personal resources to the race, it’s not clear whether he can—or will—fully self-fund a campaign. A key test of his viability may be whether conservative outside groups are willing to give him back-up on the airwaves.

A Bevin adviser, who asked to speak anonymously in the pre-announcement phase, said the challenger’s preparations have been "under way for several months."

"Matt has been speaking with grassroots activists throughout Kentucky and has received a great amount of encouragement and support. This will be a real campaign, and we are ready for the inevitable smear tactics that Mitch McConnell's campaign machine is famous for," the adviser said. "In the words of Kirsten Dunst, bring it on."

Even if Bevin manages to win some support from ideological advocacy groups, it will be no small task for him—and any allies he may have won over—to take on McConnell. A senior McConnell strategist expressed deep skepticism that any prominent outside groups would ultimately take the plunge into the Kentucky GOP primary.

Bevin's reason for running is obvious: He sees an opening to attack McConnell by challenging his conservative bona fides. Tea partiers inside and outside of Kentucky accused McConnell of apostasy for brokering a deal to end the fiscal-cliff showdown in January. "We feel like he sold us out on that, and beforehand he was just feeding us political spin," John Kemper, a tea party leader in Kentucky, told me in January.

But Bevin will need all the financial help he can get. McConnell has nearly $10 million in his campaign bank account, one of the biggest war chests of any Senate candidate. As I reported, Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat, told at least one Democratic strategist that she'll need $26-$30 million to defeat McConnell.

Bevin won't need that much for the primary fight, but it's safe to say he'll need many millions to even compete with McConnell. He will need to pony up his own cash—and all the help the tea party can muster—to stand a chance.

Report: Grand Jury Convened in California "Campaign Money Laundering" Investigation

| Thu Jul. 18, 2013 4:42 PM EDT

In April, I reported on an investigation out in California into the source of a mysterious $11 million donation that the state elections watchdog called "the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history." That $11 million donation, made in October 2012 by a little-known nonprofit called Americans for Responsible Leadership, went toward defeating Proposition 30, which would have raised taxes on wealthy Californians, and passing Proposition 32, which would have curbed unions' campaign spending. But when the California Supreme Court intervened, we learned that money didn't originate with Americans for Responsible Leadership, but rather from a different nonprofit based in Virginia called Americans for Job Security. Conservatives worried, as I reported, that the probe into the true source of the $11 million might cast unwanted light on all the dark money sloshing around conservative politics.

Now, the plot thickens. Writing for the Daily Beast, Peter Stone reports that a grand jury has been convened in California's dark-money investigation. Stone notes that the existence of a grand jury likely means the state's probe is intensifying as it tries to unmask the true source of that $11 million donation, be it a single wealthy donor, several individual donors, a company, etc.

Stone also reports that billionaire investor Charles Schwab or an entity affiliated with Schwab has received a subpoena as part of the California probe. In November 2011, Mother Jones reported that Schwab was part of a club of donors who'd given more than $1 million to groups and causes backed by Charles and David Koch. A spokesman for Schwab did not comment for Stone's story.

The stakes of California's investigation are very high, as Stone notes:

If prosecutors do move forward, their investigation could shine light on parts of the burgeoning network of conservative "social welfare" outfits that spent hundreds of millions in the last two elections. Under IRS rules, social-welfare groups can engage in political activities so long as that work is not their primary purpose, a loosely enforced rule often interpreted to mean that 49 percent of a group’s spending can go toward political work.

One of the three groups that allegedly channeled the funds to California was the Arizona-based Center to Protect Patient Rights, founded in 2009 by Koch operative Sean Noble, who has emerged in recent cycles as a big player in conservative political and fundraising circles. Noble has spoken at least twice at the billionaire brothers’ biannual conferences aimed at tapping other wealthy conservatives for their favorite projects, and he has been a key strategist at small Washington meetings with other GOP allied groups such as the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads.

"Sean is the wizard behind the screen" for the Kochs and their network of wealthy donors, said one GOP operative familiar with Noble's political work.

In 2010 and 2012, Noble's Center appeared to act mainly as a cash conduit, shipping millions to allied conservative groups. In the 2010 cycle, for instance, it channeled almost $55 million—a sum almost identical to its revenues—to a couple dozen conservative bastions including Americans for Tax Reform and the American Future Fund, according to the group's filings with the IRS. Most of that largess went to pay for advertising backing GOP candidates or attacking Democrats.

"We had no involvement whatsoever, financial or otherwise, neither directly nor indirectly, on anything to do with Prop. 30 or Prop. 32," a spokesman for Koch Industries, Rob Tappan, said in an email. Tappan, however, indicated he spoke only for Koch and not “independent entities,” such as Noble’s Center. Asked if the Kochs had received subpoenas from the grand jury, Tappan said it was company policy not to comment on “the existence or nonexistence of investigations.” Noble did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Officials with California's Fair Political Practices Commission and the state AG's office have refused to comment on the progress of their probes. But in a brief interview in April, Ann Ravel, the chairwoman of the FPPC, said she fully intends to find out who truly was behind that $11 million. "The most important factor of any investigation of this sort is getting the names of who's contributing to campaigns in California," she said. "Because that's the law."

Ex-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels Supports Free Speech—Except When He Disagrees With It

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 12:04 PM EDT

When Mitch Daniels took the helm of Purdue University in January, after eight years as the Republican governor of Indiana, he published an "open letter to the people of Purdue" outlining his vision for the state's second-largest public college. In his letter, Daniels offered critiques and observations about the state of higher education; on the subject of "Open Inquiry," he wrote: "A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate," adding that "the ensuring of free expression is paramount."

Now, some great muckraking by the Associated Press casts serious doubt on Daniels' commitment to protecting free speech. According to emails obtained by the AP, Daniels as governor tried to ban the works of historian Howard Zinn from the classrooms of Indiana's public colleges. When Zinn died in February 2010, Daniels wrote in an email: "The terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away." Daniel described Zinn's celebrated and widely read book A People's History of the United States as "a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page."

Daniels goes on to write: "Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?"

When told the book was being taught at Indiana University in a course on American social movements, Daniel fired back: "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session."

More from the AP:

David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school board member, replied seven minutes later with a strategy directing Bennett and Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers to review university courses across the state.

"Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in 'professional development' and what is not. Who will take charge," Daniels replied seven minutes later.

Shane replied that a statewide review "would force to daylight a lot of excrement."

Just seven minutes later, Daniels signed off on it.

"Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings. Don't the ed schools have at least some substantive PD (professional development) courseware to upgrade knowledge of math, science, etc," Daniels wrote.

Daniels also appeared to have used his position as governor to target an academic who was critical of the state's education policies. Emails show that Daniels asked for an audit focusing on the work of Charles Little, who is on the faculty of Indiana University Purdue University–Indianapolis' School of Education and who leads the Indiana Urban Schools Association, an advocate for inner-city students, teachers, and administrators. In an April 11, 2009, email, Daniels asked for greater scrutiny of Little's program and how it spent it funds.

Reached at his office, Little said he wasn't surprised that Daniels and his colleagues targeted him. "It is worrisome that some of the people mentioned in the article are still around" in state government, Little told me.

Daniels, for his part, told the AP he had no regrets about his decision to target Howard Zinn. "We must not falsely teach American history in our schools," he responded. "We have a law requiring state textbook oversight to guard against frauds like Zinn, and it was encouraging to find that no Hoosier school district had inflicted his book on its students."

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