PHOENIX – An obscure political group based in the Valley injected another $350,000 this week into the effort to defeat Proposition 121, which would replace Arizona’s partisan primary system with a single primary that advances the top candidates regardless of party.
In all, Americans for Responsible Leadership has donated $450,000 to Save Our Vote, accounting for nearly all of the latter’s fundraising reported to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
Americans for Responsible Leadership also contributed $500,000 in mid-September to No New Taxes, No on 204, the group leading the campaign against Proposition 204, which would create a 1 cent-per-dollar sales tax to benefit education and other causes. That contribution accounts for nearly all of that group’s funding listed with the state.
Not much is known about the group. Its filing as a nonprofit with the Arizona Corporation Commission lists three Arizona businessmen as directors. A filing with the Federal Election Commission lists a Phoenix post office box as its mailing address and included a cover letter from a law firm in Warrenton, Va.
Americans for Responsible Leadership filed with the IRS in such a way that it doesn’t have to disclose the sources of the money it uses for political contributions.
Earlier this week, the conservative Small Business Action Committee in California disclosed that it had received an $11 million donation from the Arizona group. The committee is running campaigns for a ballot measure that would bar union dues from funding political activity and against a proposition to raise the state sales tax by a quarter cent and raise income taxes on those with higher incomes.
Paul Johnson, a leader of the Open Government Committee, the group behind Proposition 121, said anonymous donations on the whole are “problematic” and said that people should have the right to know where the money is coming from.
“Whoever it is wants to see the system stay exactly like it is, and they don’t want you to know their name,” he said.
Ann-Eve Pedersen, chairwoman of the political committee advocating for Proposition 204, said that groups such as Americans for Responsible Leadership fuel the public’s distrust of politics.
“I think this is just going to continue to erode public confidence in the political process if special interest groups can try and buy an election like they’re trying to buy an election,” she said. “And we don’t even know who it is.”
The group has also donated $11,500 to the campaign of Rep. Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, speaker of the Arizona State House of Representatives, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political giving, the group donated $5,300 to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Americans for Responsible Leadership was formed in July 2011 and listed three directors in its filing with the Arizona Corporation Commission: Robert Graham of Phoenix, Steve Nickolas of Scottsdale and Eric Wnuck of Scottsdale.
Graham is the president and CEO of RG Capital, an investment advisory service in Scottsdale, and is running for chairman of the state Republican Party. Nickolas has had several ventures in the beverage industry, according to his website. Wnuck is the former president and CEO of Enhanced Medical Imaging and made a short-lived bid as a Republican in Arizona’s 5th Congressional District in 2010.
A woman who answered Thursday at the number listed on Graham’s campaign website said he was in India. Nickolas didn’t respond by late Thursday afternoon to a query submitted via his website. A message left at Wnuck’s home number wasn’t returned by late Thursday afternoon.
Americans for Responsible Leadership has a website devoted to information opposing Proposition 121 and 204 and saying it “seeks to promote the general welfare by educating the public on concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics, and related public policy issues.” The site doesn’t list contact information but has a fill-in form under its contact tab.
Voicemails left at numbers listed with the Secretary of State’s Office for Save Our Vote and No New Taxes, No on 204 weren’t returned by late Thursday afternoon.
The cover letter on the group’s FEC filing was from the law firm of HoltzmanVogelJosefiak PLLC and signed by Chris Winkelman, identified on the firm’s website as an associate. A message left with the law firm and an email to Winkelman weren’t returned by late Thursday afternoon.
Fred Solop, a professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University, said that while he has trouble as an individual supporting anonymous political giving it is allowed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.
“We have a system where the Supreme Court has said otherwise, and it’s a system we have to live with,” he said.