Transparency Groups Target Bloomberg PAC in Long-Shot Bid to Unmask Donors

Can the FCC require TV stations to identify major donors by name in political ads?

Michael Bloomberg (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In a push to expose the billionaires trying to influence elections, advocacy groups filed complaints Thursday against 18 television stations that aired ads for the Independence USA PAC.

That political action committee, according to the complaints, is entirely funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The television stations should have required that the ads identify Bloomberg by name, the advocacy groups argued.

The groups—Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Campaign Legal Center—didn’t file their complaints with the Federal Election Commission, the usual agency for regulating campaign finance issues. Instead, the groups are urging the Federal Communications Commission to aggressively use its power over the nation’s airwaves to make political spending more transparent.

“It’s past time for the FCC to enforce the law and require the disclosure demanded by the Communications Act,” former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now an adviser for Common Cause, said in a statement. “As we enter an election year, Americans have a particularly vital interest in knowing who is behind efforts to influence our votes.”

The Communications Act requires that all TV and radio ads (commercial and political) reveal the “true identity” of their sponsors. The transparency groups have been pressing the FCC to use that provision to require TV stations to identify the major donors behind political ads, and not just the vague name of the donor’s PAC.

Democrats in Congress have even introduced the Keeping Our Campaigns Honest Act (yes, that’s the “KOCH Act”), which would direct the FCC to force stations to identify major donors by name.

But the FCC has been reluctant to get involved in the fight. Last year, the agency dismissed a series of complaints, saying the groups had failed to show “credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party.”

This time, the groups say they can prove that Bloomberg provided 100 percent of the funding for the Independence USA PAC since its creation. In addition to filing formal complaints against the 18 stations, the groups also sent notices to 100 more stations around the country, informing them of Bloomberg’s role in the PAC and urging them to identify him by name in ads.

A spokesman for Independence USA declined to comment.  According to the group’s website, it promotes gun control, environmental protection, same-sex marriage, and education policy. The group aired TV ads last year attacking Tom Foley, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Connecticut, and Larry Hogan, a Republican who was elected governor of Maryland, for not supporting gun control legislation.

Andrew Schwartzman, an attorney at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation who supported the complaints, said the groups didn’t target Bloomberg because of his politics. The groups have also filed complaints focusing on groups sponsored by liberal donor Tom Steyer and conservative donor Sean Fieler, he said. “Our point is this is not tied to one part of the spectrum,” he said.