Campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold profiting from dark money, GOP group says

A television ad attacking Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who is aiming to reclaim the US Senate seat he held for 18 years, opens with images of rapidly rotting fruit.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spot aired in Milwaukee and Green Bay during the GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee on Nov. 10, 2015. It contends that Feingolds time in Washington changed him for the worse.

His values decayed, his principles eroded and he lost touch with Wisconsin, the narrator says midway into the ad. He wanted to get money out of politics. Now hes profiting from that same dark money.

Feingold has long championed campaign finance reforms, though he earned a Full Flop on our Flip-O-Meter for reversing his position on raising most of his campaign funds from Wisconsin residents.

But is Feingold profiting from dark money? That is, money spent in election campaigns by groups that dont have to disclose their donors?

More darkness

Dark money spending is rising, we found earlier this month in rating as True a claim by US Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

So far in the 2015-2016 election, $4.88 million in dark money expenditures, mostly by conservative groups, have been made.

Thats more than 10 times what was spent at this point during the 2011-2012 cycle — when a total of $308 million in dark money was spent.

It remains to be seen how much dark money might be spent on either side as Feingold challenges Republican US Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016, in a rematch of their 2010 contest.

The ad

In the TV ad, when the claim about Feingold and dark money is made, footnotes alluding to two news articles appear on the screen.

The major one was a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story in June 2015 on spending by two groups Feingold formed in February 2011: Progressives United PAC, a liberal political action committee, and Progressives United Inc., a so-called 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization.

The Journal Sentinel article reported that data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics showed the PAC had given a mere 5 percent of its income to federal candidates and political parties. Instead, nearly half of the $7.1 million that had been spent went to raising more money for itself.

The article also said Feingold and nine of his former campaign and US Senate staffers drew salaries or consulting fees from the PAC, and five of them also spent time on the payroll of Progressives United Inc., the nonprofit.

PACs, however, are required to disclose their donors. So, our focus here is on the Progressives United Inc. nonprofit. It is a dark money group in that 501(c)(4) groups (a reference to the Internal Revenue Service code) are not required to disclose their donors.

At the same time, nothing prevents nonprofits such as Progressives United Inc. from disclosing donors on their own.

The money

Federal tax filings show Progressives United Inc. paid Feingold as president of the group $10,000 in 2011, $30,000 in 2012 and $19,500 in 2013 — a total of $59,500.

But he is no longer profiting from the nonprofit in that he took a leave from Progressives United after being selected a special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa in June 2013. He hasnt received any payments since 2013.

But Progressives United Inc. didnt actually operate as a conventional dark-money group does — at least while it was active.

A Feingold campaign spokesman sent us links (using the Way Back Machine — archive.org) so that we could access pages from the Progressive United Inc. website that have since been taken down.

The donors were listed for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

But Progressives United Inc. stopped operating at the end of 2014 and its website is dormant.

That means the donor lists are no longer readily available — at a time, with Feingold running for the Senate, when public interest in the lists might be high.

A Feingold campaign spokesman told us the website is no longer active because Progressives United Inc. no longer is taking in income to pay for expenses such as web hosting.

Our rating

The National Republican Senatorial Committee said Feingold wanted to get money out of politics. Now hes profiting from that same dark money.

Feingold received $59,500 in salary from Progressives United Inc., a non-profit founded by Feingold that is not required to disclose its donors, but stopped receiving payments in 2013.

While it was active, the group voluntarily listed its donors on its website. But those lists are no longer readily accessible, since the groups website is no longer active.

For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details, our rating is Half True.

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Feingold says Ron Johnson opposes entirely a federal minimum wage, except perhaps for guest workers. True

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