Conservative group hits the airwaves against Franken

WASHINGTON — A conservative group known as one of the biggest players in last cycle’s dark money game has launched the first outside attack ad against Sen. Al Franken.

American Encore’s reported $250,000 ad buy looks to tie Franken to a rule proposed by the IRS last fall to define how much “social welfare” groups (also known as 501(c)(4)s, for their tax-exempt status) can spend on political activities. Under current regulations, these groups are supposed to make social welfare their “primary” goal, as opposed to political endeavors like issue-based advertising (The Washington Post explains the proposed rule here).

The ad says the rule is “designed to control the speech of certain non-profits.”

“Sen. Franken pressured the IRS to target these groups. He thinks that free speech should depend on who is speaking,” the ad says over video of a Tea Party rally, “and wants the IRS to make that call.”

Here’s the ad, via the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the buy:

The ad is based on a letter Franken and six other senators wrote to the IRS in 2012 asking it to define what counts as social welfare and political activity for these groups. The letter suggested the IRS, among other things, define what “primary purpose” means for the sake of how much a group should be spending on social welfare versus political activities and require the groups to document, as a percentage, how much they’re spending on each.

The IRS announced its rule change — which has not yet been approved — last November. It would affect groups like American Encore, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, was formerly called the “Center to Protect Patient Rights.” While CPPR didn’t directly spend money on political activities, between 2009 and 2012, the 501(c)(4) group distributed more than $167 million to non-profits that would report political spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (ProPublica detailed the flows of money to and from CPPR during the 2012 election cycle.) CRP has called the group “an ATM for politically active nonprofits on the right” and “the linchpin in one of the most complex networks of dark money in the country.”

Democrats have tried to make outside political groups and their financial backers an issue ahead of the 2014 elections. Franken himself is a big critic of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to more campaign spending from corporations and labor groups. In a statement, his campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff called the ad’s claims “ridiculous.”

“Sen. Franken is one of the most vigorous defenders of free speech in the Senate,” she said. “These attacks have been repeatedly proven false. We’ve always known that Sen. Franken was going to be a target of special interest groups. It’s no surprise that they’re here, but it’s not going to stop him from doing his job.”

Devin Henry can be reached at

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by John Roach on 03/26/2014 - 10:31 am.

    So, a Koch front group masquerading as a social nonprofit…

    …attacks Franken. For pointing out that maybe political front operations shouldn’t be entitled to tax benefits that are supposed to go to non-political groups. It seems that the Senator has a point.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/26/2014 - 11:32 am.

      I hope that’s Franken’s response too

      It’ll be interesting hearing his explanation of why the IRS was used against only conservative groups but not liberal groups. If we had a real press in this town, this ad wouldn’t have necessary because he would have had to already account for his role in the misuse of the IRS against political enemies … which was one of the Nixon impeachment charges if I remember correctly.

      • Submitted by David Hanegraaf on 03/26/2014 - 12:52 pm.

        Not true.

        Non-conservative groups were targeted too. Subsequent investigation by Congress revealed that the author of the original report was bias in that he failed to include that other non-conservative groups were targeted also.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 03/26/2014 - 01:12 pm.

        He doesn’t have to answer for it

        because neither letter mentioned conservative groups in any way, shape or form. And this town DOES have a press that reported on it because both those letters were printed in the Hot Dish Political blog section of the Strib.

      • Submitted by John Roach on 03/26/2014 - 02:40 pm.

        It is indeed notable that a certain segment

        of the “media” has failed to report the whole “IRS Scandal” story. Namely the part that shows it was and is a complete non-scandal, as groups with “progressive”, “occupy” and any other terms indicating a political tilt were also targeted in exactly the same way. Not even Rep. Issa, who loves his investigative hearings so very much, denies that.

        Then again, “facts” aren’t what that particular media segment sells, and that particular audience segment isn’t really interested in factual reporting.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/26/2014 - 02:48 pm.


        The lack of a “real press” in this case pertains to wherever you get your information, Mr. Tester. Because you are the one who is misinformed. I expect that Franken’s response will be the truth – that it wasn’t just conservative groups targeted, but liberal groups as well.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/26/2014 - 10:38 am.

    Gosh I hope Minnesotans are

    smarter than this. But you have to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the rules and know that nonprofits get their “no tax” status because they are suppose to be providing a “public service”.

  3. Submitted by David Broden on 03/26/2014 - 11:01 am.

    Balanced Approach for Funding and for Messages

    As we enter another election cycle there are two key issues that seem to get in the mix. The first is the funding guidelines of who can and who cannot etc. as expressed in the article and the action proposed by Franken– this discussion will always be politically driven and not balanced to all poltical sides. The other is perhaps more important– it would be refreshing if candidates challenging incumbents spent a large amount of up front funds connecting with the voters with a who am I , why me, and what will I do different to benefit the constiuents. Starting with negative messages is just one more repeat of the strategy of the big political consultants rather than someone who might know a bit about the electorate. The Voters want Postives first– negatives will cause most people to not listen to the positives if and when they do appear.

    Dave Broden

  4. Submitted by David Hanegraaf on 03/26/2014 - 12:47 pm.

    Koch front group

    Was shocked to learn this week that 52 percent of Americans surveyed do not know who the Koch Bros are. Two brothers, not to mention Sheldon Adelson, pouring millions of dollars into elections in order to reduce billionaire’s taxes and strengthen the power of corporations by weakening the power of the people’s government, and 52 percent of the people are asleep.

  5. Submitted by John Edwards on 03/26/2014 - 12:13 pm.

    The irony is rich

    Reporter Devin Henry cites reporting done by ProPublica about American Encore’s ads without mentioning that ProPublica is simply a left-wing reporting organization funded by left-wing groups like George Soros’ Open Secrets Society. ProPublica was mostly recently involved in reporting confidential information from the IRS about conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. It has also been widely criticized for a highly one-sided story on hydraulic fracturing.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/26/2014 - 04:25 pm.

    The most significant point of this article is “dark money”,…

    …$167 million of it from one organization alone, distributed to numerous related organizations, who then use the money for political purposes – a system which keeps the public in the dark.

    I’ll wager not very many Americans have ever heard of American Encore nor the Center to Protect Patient Rights, the source of this money. And they are just one outfit of many.

    As far as I’m concerned, I’d like to hear about all such cases – left or right is not the point. It will tell us where the money is coming from, for one thing. For another, it would reveal whether these 2 organizations, and others, are fundamentally political funding operations masquerading as something other.

    Further, it appears they are not being singled out for persecution, and Franken’s request to the IRS was balanced and even-handed.

    This is about shining a light in a dark place, no matter who or what resides there.

  7. Submitted by Pat Brady on 03/27/2014 - 06:50 am.

    Seriously, $250,000. for this ad!

    I saw this ad last night while watching Larry O’Donnell show.
    All I remember was freedom of speech, blah, blah,…
    folks it is only March and the attack ads begin.
    The Republicans and their pacs must have more money than God to start with this in MN at this early date.
    More money in Comcast pocket this political season is the only benefit.

  8. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/27/2014 - 03:30 pm.

    Poor Franken supporters

    It must be rough to be a Franken supporter this year. They have to find a big enough issue to counteract Franken’s support of Obamacare, and all they can come up with is campaign money from rich people. Tsk, tsk.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 03/27/2014 - 04:08 pm.

      We don’t even know who the GOP Senate nominee will be, and already a PAC that doesn’t disclose it’s donors spent a quarter-million dollars attacking Franken for a letter he co-wrote in 2012 decrying groups that spend millions to (effectively) promote or disparage candidates and are tax-exempt.

      And yet, you’re ‘Tsk Tsking’ Franken supports for griping about the influence of dark money in a comment thread about dark money. I can guarantee you, we can, and will, come up with all sorts of issues to talk about- INCLUDING ‘Obamacare.’

      The only thing rough about being a Franken supporter is having to deal with tripe like these ‘American Encore’ ads, and the rest of the worthless and misleading invective we’ll all be subjected to up until election day.

  9. Submitted by jason myron on 03/27/2014 - 04:11 pm.

    Not really…

    if Ortman is the best you have, Franken will be able to go to bed early and the rest of us will tune in here to read your charges of “voter fraud” after your tears have dried. As usual, you folks are going to find that outside of your bubble, running against the ACA is going to be a political loser for you.

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