WASHINGTON -- Tax-exempt groups have spent more than $130 million trying to sway the fall elections, an Associated Press analysis has found.
Along the way, these new breed of political groups -- free from the spending and fund-raising restraints imposed on candidates and parties -- have collected mammoth donations from figures as varied as actress Jane Fonda and New York executive Richard Gilder.
"Our agenda is to get more good people elected who agree with our ideas and to have some leverage over these people by showing we can defeat them if they defect and help them if they stay with us," said Stephen Moore, president of The Club for Growth, which supports conservative candidates.
These groups have taken advantage of a special Internal Revenue Service classification for political groups that has existed for years but only gained popularity over the last few years. Congress responded this summer by requiring the groups to disclose their donations and expenses.
The trend has created a potent new class of political groups that don't have to pay taxes on the donations they collect or abide by the post-Watergate limits on political fund raising and spending. Unlike with charities, however, contributors to these groups cannot take tax deductions.
The AP computer analysis of the first-ever IRS filings by these groups found that more than 10,000 tax-exempt organizations nationwide had registered to engage in political activity. Through late October, at least 1,859 reported spending money.
The groups had raised $97.3 million and spent $132.6 million since July 1, the analysis showed. Earlier donations and expenses did not have to be disclosed.
"That is a surprisingly large number, more than I would have thought," former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter said.
Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine, said these groups will account for 10 percent to 20 percent of all spending in elections.
He called the new groups "the latest innovation in circumventing the campaign finance laws" and said those that target their extensive money at individual races can have a major impact.
An abortion-rights group called Pro Choice Vote filed its organizational papers with the IRS on Sept. 12 -- just seven weeks before the election -- with a promise to "educate the public about the issue of choice in the elections."
The group had a single donor -- Fonda -- who shelled out $11.7 million of her own money.
The organization used her money to make large donations to abortion-rights groups in such election battleground states as Missouri, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, as well as in New York and California. It also used the money to air its own radio ads and to produce Internet video segments featuring actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Jessica Parker.
In one ad, Goldberg implores voters to "get up off that couch, honey, and get into that voting booth" because Supreme Court justices appointed by the next president "will determine whether or not a woman's right to choose is safe."
Fonda said she financed the effort because "I wanted to do more to help voters understand reproductive rights and related issues so that they could make informed decisions when they go to the polls."
Republican donors and GOP-leaning companies have contributed to The Club for Growth. The givers range from columnist William Buckley ($1,000) to Gilder, a New York stockbroker who gave $150,000.
The group already has spent $469,000 and has targeted about 15 congressional races, including helping Republican House hopeful Ric Keller in Florida by running ads portraying his Democratic opponent as a tax raiser.
Independent of campaigns and parties, such groups often can take risks hoping to tip an election.
The Republican Leadership Council, which has spent $1.83 million since July 1, ran ads last week to help GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush. The ads were designed to induce Democrats to defect to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
"I don't think he (Bush) could have gotten away with it the way we did," said RLC executive director Mark Miller.
Some of the groups are traditional political action committees and unions that for years have disclosed their activities to the FEC but which have now filed under IRS Section 527. Most, however, either were created for the 2000 election or conducted political activities that weren't previously disclosed.
Several House leaders -- including Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas; and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. -- also created such groups and collected donations far larger than allowed for their own campaigns.
Several tax-exempt groups broke the seven-figure spending mark:
--The NAACP's Americans for Equality, $3.38 million.
--The Sierra Club, $5.47 million, the environmental group running ads against Bush.
--A drug company-backed group called Citizens for Better Medicare, that has reported spending $8.46 million on an ad campaign opposing a government-run Medicare prescription benefit plan.
Other groups have focused locally.
In Florida, trial lawyers spent more than $1 million on state legislative races using multiple tax-exempt organizations. One such group, Florida Consumer Advocates Inc., ran ads attacking candidates the lawyers opposed, including one that featured the widow of a victim of a car crash involving defective Firestone tires.
On the Net:
IRS Web site on tax-exempt political groups: http://www.irs.gov/prod/bus--info/eo/pol-orgs.html
AP site: http://wire.ap.org.
Rebecca Sinderbrand, Brooke Donald and Garrett Therolf contributed to this story.
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