Americans Elect, a group trying to launch a third-party presidential ticket, was accused by a prominent campaign watchdog Wednesday of violating tax and campaign finance disclosure laws.
Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, said in a statement that the group is posing as a "social welfare group" rather than a political organization in order "to keep secret from the American people the donors supporting its political activities."
Social welfare groups don't have to disclose who underwrites them -- but they're also supposed to stay out of elections.
Meanwhile, at a kickoff event for Americans Elect at the National Press Club on Tuesday, the group's leaders described how they intend to put a "nonpartisan presidential ticket" -- chosen through an online, open nominating convention -- on the ballot in all 50 states. The goal, they said, it to give voters an alternative to the limited choice the two-party system provides.
Kahlil Byrd, the group's CEO, said it is operating "completely within the bounds" of the law. He noted that unlike a traditional political group, "Americans Elect has no candidate and has no issue."
As for the donors, he said, the reason they want to remain secret is to avoid political payback. "This is a very tough political environment," he said. "Retribution is real."
Byrd also, perhaps contradictorily, described donating to the campaign as "a small act of courage."
The group says it has already raised $22 million of its $30 million target. Byrd refused to identify the group's largest donors. But he did say that contributions from donors who gave more than $100,000 had actually come in the form of loans that the group expects to pay back from future, smaller donations.
At some point, then, people donating $1, $5, or more to advance Americans Elect's cause will presumably be paying back these anonymous wealthy donors instead.
The group claims it accepts no money from "special interests," but it is thought to be funded primarily by hedge funds.
For some time, it was organized under a different section of the tax code than it is now -- the one for political organizations. Its financial disclosure statement showed that it had raised over $1.5 million from controversial financier Peter Ackerman, whose son Elliot is the group's chief operating officer, and $189 from everybody else combined.
The group is clearly positioning itself to harness and channel the intense dissatisfaction voters currently have with the candidates the political parties have been offering them. But the goal seems to be more a centrist mash-up of the two parties than a dramatic alternative. The group's bylaws, for instance, appear to allow its leaders to veto any ticket they don't consider "balanced."
And while the group used pictures from the Occupy protests in its presentation on Tuesday, its chief strategist is Douglas Schoen, a pollster and Fox News political analyst who just a few weeks ago penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he asserted that the Occupy Wall Street protesters supported "radical left-wing policies" that "are dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.
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