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Spin Patrol: Anonymous Ambush Ads
Tax-Exempt groups sponsor attack ads but no one knows who is behind them
By Brooks Jackson/CNN
WASHINGTON (March 26) -- It's guerilla warfare, come to politics. Shooting from ambush. Attack ads, with a difference: No disclosure of who's paying for them.
In an spot whose sponsorship is only labeled "Citizens For Reform," Rep. Calvin Dooley (D-Calif.) is accused of being soft on drug enforcement and supporting the "radical lawyers who represented drug dealers."
$300,000 worth of ads like this one aired during the last two weeks of Dooley's re-election campaign.
And who paid for them is still a mystery to Dooley and the public.
"Nobody knew who they were, who was funding them, and really what their objective was other than to undermine my base of support," Dooley said. He was just one of many targets during last year's campaign, as ambush ads popped up all over.
"Citizens for Reform" is a tax-exempt group that exists only on paper, created last July by conservative Republican activist Peter Flaherty. The organization ran ads in 15 districts last year and spent at least $2 million.
But Flaherty won't say who put up the money. All he would say is, "All our money is raised voluntarily from concerned citizens."
And his weren't the only ambush ads. Democrat Nick Lampson, running for Congress in Texas was accused of Medicare fraud in another such attack ad.
It was financed by the Citizens for the Republic Education Fund, another tax-exempt group formed last summer by a former aide to Ronald Reagan, Lyn Nofziger.
Asked, "You're not going to tell us who financed your organization," Nofziger replied, "You're exactly right."
Nofziger's group raised more than $2 million and ran ads in more than a dozen congressional races. They spent $337,000 in the Arkansas Senate race.
Democrats want Senate investigators to subpoena these and other tax-exempt groups because they raise money from any source, in any amount, with no public accountability.
But Republicans say they're only shooting back at organized labor.
The AFL-CIO spent more than $22 million on ads attacking Republicans, and claimed its attack ads were not campaign commercials -- just ads discussing the issues and therefore exempt from campaign finance laws. The Republican groups are now claiming exactly the same thing about their ads.
Flaherty said his donors need secrecy to protect them against possible retaliation by unions.
"For political advertising, disclosure is in the public interest," he said. "For citizen's groups which are merely involved with issues and not supporting or advocating the defeat of a candidate, it's in the public interest that those groups have their ability to keep their donors private."
And unless Congress changes the rules, you can count on lots more ambush ads and secret donors in Campaign '98.
"You bet your life we'll do it again," Nofziger pledged. "Absolutely. We'll spend as much as we can raise," he added.
There's a word for it. Escalation.
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