The non-profit American Bridge 21st Century foundation, created by Media Matters founder David Brock, is launching a new watchdog group to delve deep into conservative groups and those who fund them. The Bridge Project will operate alongside the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, according to Yahoo News.
The aim is three-fold: The Bridge Project plans to operate as a source of rapid response to political ads launched by Republican-friendly outside groups, track donations to these groups from conservative donors by reviewing tax filings and other public documents, and serve as a research organization that will file regular public policy briefings.
The group, which has directed research teams to build databases on several conservative groups, will use the website BridgeProject.com to disseminate the information. The new site will regularly highlight ads from conservative groups and detailed profiles on the individual donors who fund them.
"We hope the Bridge Project will serve as an important resource for the public by providing them with concrete facts on all aspects of the conservative movement," Bridge Project Communications Director Chris Harris told Yahoo News.
One wonders what Brock envisions by “building databases” and highlighting “detailed profiles on the individual donors who fund them.” The language is eerily similar to that associated with a disturbing research project that was revealed through another Media Matters initiative.
Earlier this year, the Daily Caller exposed a memo from then MMFA executive Karl Frisch, which outlined the conservative media watchdog’s strategy for attacking what it perceived as the primary enemy to the Obama administration and “the progressive movement as a whole” – FOX News. Given Brock’s track record and that of Media Matters, which includes the use of private investigators, it would not be unreasonable for conservative groups and donors to expect the same treatment as the organization’s assault on FOX News revealed. Per the Daily Caller article:
What Frisch proceeded to suggest, however, went well beyond what legitimate presidential campaigns attempt. “We should hire private investigators to look into the personal lives of Fox News anchors, hosts, reporters, prominent contributors, senior network and corporate staff,” he wrote.
After that, Frisch argued, should come the legal assault: “We should look into contracting with a major law firm to study any available legal actions that can be taken against Fox News, from a class action law suit to defamation claims for those wronged by the network. I imagine this would be difficult but the right law firm is bound to find some legal ground for us to take action against the network.” […]
“We should also hire a team of trackers to stake out private and public events with Fox News anchors, hosts, reporters, prominent contributors and senior network/corporate staff.” […]
The memo goes on to suggest new and unusual ways to harass Fox News: “detailed opposition research” on the network’s staff and executives, attacks against Fox News employees on Facebook and other social media, mailing anti-Fox News literature to their homes and placing “yard signs and outdoor advertising in their neighborhoods.”
Efforts like Brock’s may claim to be merely about “correcting misinformation” and “providing facts,” but as the Daily Caller exposé of Media Matters revealed, that is not exactly what’s been practiced, in reality. Instead, the activities have delved into the personal lives of private citizens who work for a particular corporation.
What’s worse, such activities often trigger a domino effect of harassment from other progressive groups and individuals against anyone who happen to hold an opposing political view.
Over the past year, even conservative bloggers and activists have become victims of aggressive and vicious left wing dirty tricks - smear campaigns, online harassment and intrusive investigative tactics - not unlike those described in the MMFA memo. Several have even become the targets of nuisance “lawfare” actions.
And for those who’ve become targets because of their political donor status, self-proclaimed watchdog groups such as the Bridge Project also draw into question the effectiveness of rules in campaign finance reporting. While transparency is intended to be a good thing – private citizens want to know who is putting money behind the issues they’re debating – the political environment today has become so hostile that readily available information about donors and organizations is all too frequently abused for retaliatory or nefarious purposes.
While Brock is a proponent for transparency in campaign finance when the donors support candidates on the right, he doesn’t appear to subscribe to the same rules of accountability for himself or organizations with which he is associated. As Breitbart News reported last month:
David Brock, head of the Media Matters empire, is treasurer of Obama’s SuperPAC, called American Bridge 21st Century. That PAC has now joined forces with PrioritiesUSA SuperPAC, headed by two former Obama Administration officials.
Brock’s American Bridge PAC is a 527 organization. By law, a 527 organization must disclose its donors. But, fortuitously enough, the PAC’s sister-organization, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, isn’t required to disclose donors. As a 501c4, it’s considered a charity for “social welfare” and not required to note its donors in public filings.
Brock's 21st Century Foundation has funneled over $200,000 to the American Bridge SuperPAC, therefore keeping the original donors secret. Donors donate anonymously to the c4 organization and Brock bundles their donations right along to the PAC (which only lists the donor as the c4). Given this shell game, it’s hypocritical in the extreme that Obama urged the FEC to block Republican 501c4 non-profits from running ads if they fail to disclose their own donor lists. Per Obama’s own stance, the FEC should reject American Bridge’s ads.
This isn’t the first we’ve seen of such attacks against right-leaning political donors, either. Several private individuals have found themselves on the receiving end of other intrusive investigations, having landed on the now infamous “Obama Enemies List.”
In April, the Obama campaign launched a crusade against a list of eight GOP donors - private citizens – publicly identifying them and calling them out online on social media outlets and websites. This prompted months of endless smears against those on the enemies list, most notably corporate CEO Frank Vandersloot and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Vandersloot first became aware of the attacks when he began receiving angry phone calls and letters from customers after an Obama campaign website, "Keeping GOP Honest," smeared Vandersloot as a less than reputable businessman and opponent of gay rights. The attacks negatively affected his business. The Weekly Standard highlighted Vandersloot’s account from a FOX News interview:
"Those people that I know well weren't affected by this [attack]," said Vandersloot. "But for people who didn't know me, who are members of our business or customers, and they were reading this, then we got a barrage of phone calls of people cancelling their customer memberships with us."
It would later come to be known that a private investigator named Glenn Simpson (using the pseudonym Mr. Michael Wolf), a partner in a PI firm by the name of Fusion GPS, had been hired to dig deep into the personal life of Vandersloot, including his divorce records, court records and other information. And by July, Vandersloot had become the target of both an IRS audit and a labor department investigation.
Similarly, Sheldon Adelson fell victim to the same attacks after being named to the same enemies list, and researchers later obtained various court records and other information about the wealthy GOP donor. The assault on Adelson, owner of the Venetian Resort and Sands casinos in Las Vegas, further multiplied and some Democratic groups began posting smears against Adelson. Most recently, both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Jewish Democratic Council pushed a story that Adelson personally approved of Chinese prostitution in his casinos. Adelson immediately denied the charge, which prompted an unusual public apology from the DCCC. He then filed a $60 million libel suit against the National Jewish Democratic Council, categorizing the claims as “character assassination.”
In a Politico Op-Ed for The Arena in June, Curt Levey, Executive Director of Committee for Justice, posed an important question: Would campaign finance transparency result in donor bullying?
Levey elaborates on the misconception that conservatives have changed their position on campaign disclosure requirements. Not so, says Levey.
What has changed is that progressives are now pushing for disclosure requirements on independent expenditures - that is, political free speech - by non-profit advocacy groups and private citizens. Conservatives are pushing back against such an extension because it is dangerous both legally and empirically.
Experience shows that forcing individuals and advocacy groups to disclose their donors opens them up to harassment and intimidation, an increasing trend documented by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and myself. It’s a trend that’s likely to accelerate in the Internet age. Opponents of Proposition 8, California’s traditional marriage ballot initiative, created web sites with maps showing the location of the homes of Proposition 8 supporters. As a result, supporters suffered property damage and threats of physical violence and death, including receiving envelopes containing a white powdery substance.
Levey makes excellent points, and provides further examples of the bullying tendencies that are developing as a result of those who abuse the true intended purpose of disclosure requirements.
The political warfare that opposition research has become today represents a very troubling trend for political advocacy and political speech going forward. As advocates of transparency push for the release of more and more information to the public, the potential for abuse remains a genuine concern. While transparency is a necessary and important part of the political process, the protection of free speech and privacy must also remain a constant factor in that balance.
As far The Bridge Project goes, conservatives can expect it to be around long after the election. Yahoo News reports that “American Bridge plans to make it ‘a permanent part of the progressive infrastructure’ that will operate beyond Election Day.”