IRS silent on secretive Pa. progressive group, apparently a tax scofflaw
A secretive progressive group with union ties could be fined tens of thousands of dollars for missing an IRS deadline to file its tax return, but a campaign-reform advocate fears the group might not incur a penalty.
An IRS database of tax-exempt organizations gives no indication that the group, Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which formed in 2012, has filed a mandatory federal tax return. IRS guidelines allow the agency to assess nonprofits as much as $50,000 in fines for failing to file on time.
IRS spokeswoman Jennifer Jenkins declined to comment on what consequences the agency could impose, saying the agency doesn’t single out groups in public comments.
A lawyer for Pennsylvanians for Accountability did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
“The cop has left the beat,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the Washington-based Public Citizen, a nonprofit citizens’ interest group. “And that’s why (Pennsylvanians for Accountability) probably won’t face any consequences for not filing its return with the IRS on time.”
Information about how many nonprofits the IRS has penalized this year for failing to file taxes on time was not immediately available, Jenkins said.
An unofficial, unfiled return that a lawyer for Pennsylvanians for Accountability provided the Center for Public Integrity indicated that in tax year 2012, it spent $1.2 million on ads critical of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a mailing campaign against state legislators it considered anti-labor. The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which has an address in Highland Park, is incorporated as a 501(c)(4) — or social welfare group — as opposed to a political action committee. The designation allows it to make political statements as long as it doesn’t tell people how to vote.
A key difference between social welfare groups and PACs is that the social welfare groups aren’t required to disclose funding sources; the IRS has come under criticism from clean-elections advocates who say it doesn’t subject such “dark-money groups” to enough scrutiny.
The group’s unofficial return indicates that the group spent $725,500 in spring 2013 on “television and digital outreach” in a “public education campaign” focused on Corbett’s budget. That year, the group ran TV commercials that compared Corbett’s policies to a “shell game” harmful to Pennsylvania children.
Another line on the return says the group spent $475,000 on a direct-mail campaign in certain legislative districts to “hold lawmakers accountable for anti-working class, anti-public education voting record.”
At least some of the $1.2 million in political spending came from union interests.
While the group hasn’t publicly disclosed contributors — and is under no obligation to do so — a 2013 Trib investigation found that the public-sector labor group Service Employees International Union gave the group $180,000 for “political advocacy” in 2012.
An SEIU spokesman didn’t return a call Tuesday.
The group’s pro-labor advertising campaigns have drawn backlash from state Republican lawmakers. Outspoken conservative Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, named the group in 2012 when he called for a public hearing on nonprofits that seek political influence. The hearing never convened.
So-called dark-money groups have emerged from the conservative side of the political spectrum, too.
Holman filed a lawsuit last year against the Federal Election Commission over what he viewed as inaction from the commission when it did not investigate Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit formed by former George W. Bush staffer Karl Rove that spent tens of millions of dollars on political advertising in 2010 and 2011.
“This is at the heart and soul of the campaign-finance reform debate,” Holman said.
Gideon Bradshaw is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.