An investigation by ProPublica, drawing on documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission, offers the most detailed picture to date of how 501(c)(4) groups have used their tax status for purposes likely never intended.
Our examination shows that dozens of these groups do little or nothing to justify the subsidies they receive from taxpayers. Instead, they are pouring much of their resources, directly or indirectly, into political races at the local, state and federal level.
The 2010 election functioned, effectively, as a dry run, providing a blueprint for what social welfare groups are doing on a larger scale today. Records on what is happening in the 2012 campaign will not be available until well after the election.
For this story, ProPublica reviewed thousands of pages of filings for 106 nonprofits active during the 2010 election cycle, tracking what portion of their funds went into politics. We watched TV ads bought by these groups, looked at documents from other nonprofits that gave them money, and interviewed dozens of campaign finance experts and political strategists.
We found that some groups said they would not engage in politics when they applied for IRS recognition of their tax-exempt status. But later filings showed they spent millions on just such activities.
On the very day in 2008 that the American Future Fund mailed its application to the IRS, checking the box for “no” on whether it planned to participate in politics, it uploaded an ad to YouTube praising a Republican senator. The group reported more than $8 million in political spending in 2010.
We also found that social welfare groups used a range of tactics to underreport their political activities to the IRS, a critical measure in determining whether they are entitled to remain tax-exempt.
Many groups told the IRS they spent far less on politics than they reported to federal election officials. Some classified expenditures that clearly praised or criticized candidates for office as “lobbying,” “education” or “issue advocacy” on their tax returns.