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Who’s the Most Mysterious Outside Spender of Them All?

NPR makes a pretty good case for the Commission on Hope, Growth & Opportunity, a major 501(c)(4) player in this year’s elections which not only avoids disclosing its donors to the Federal Election Commission — standard practice among Section 501 nonprofits — but has also thus far declined to file even basic reports with the commission when it runs ads that identify federal candidates.

But what it lacks in legal compliance, it at least makes up in creativity, running one ad in the form of a mock sales pitch for a commemorative coin that honors President Obama and various Democratic congressmen for increasing the national debt:

“They’ve probably run some of the more entertaining ads this cycle,” says Evan Tracey, who tracks political ads for a living at the Campaign Media Analysis Group. “They don’t look like a lot of the ads that are being shown over and over and over, by candidates and the parties and the other groups in a lot of these races.”

The “commemorative coin” ad is running against candidates in several states. It follows the Republicans’ broad strategy this year of linking the local Democrat to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the national debt.

The Commission indicated in its March IRS filing that it had no plans to spend any money to influence elections, yet its ads, nearly any way you slice it, are political. They don’t explicitly say to vote for or against a candidate, but they criticize Democratic incumbents facing tight re-election races and compare them unfavorably to their Republican opponents.”There’s not a whole lot of gray area as to whether these are about issues,” Tracey told NPR. “They’re strictly about politics and elections.” Maybe the Commission believes that the ads’ satirical nature exempts them from basic reporting practices, but this seems like a dubious legal strategy at best.

A group like this seems like an ideal candidate for the IRS or the FEC to single out and make an example of following the campaign season, but most news accounts are pessimistic about the chances of either agency doing much about it. Before Congress departed for recess, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) asked the IRS to undertake a thorough investigation of nonprofit groups that appear as if they may be in violation of their tax-exempt status, but since then there’s been little word of progress from the agency and Sen. Baucus’ office.

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