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Mystery money from little-known nonprofit in Arizona traced to similar nonprofits

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Americans for Responsible Leadership's contributions to Arizona ballot measure campaigns:

PHOENIX – An obscure Arizona nonprofit that has contributed $1.5 million to campaigns opposing two Arizona ballot measures revealed Monday under court order that $11 million it contributed to California ballot measure campaigns passed through two other obscure nonprofits.

A leader of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission said that this qualifies as money laundering and violates state law.

Americans for Responsible Leadership, which lists a Phoenix post office box as its address, handed over select records to the commission, complying with an order from the California Supreme Court.

The records showed that Americans for Responsible Leadership got the funding for its $11 million contribution to two California campaigns from the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a Phoenix-based nonprofit headed by Sean Noble, a GOP consultant.

The Center to Protect Patient Rights got the money from another group, Americans for Job Security, a Virginia-based nonprofit, according to the records.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money U.S. politics and operates the website OpenSecrets.org, describes Americans for Job Security as a conservative, pro-business group that contributed $15 million against Democratic candidates for 2012 federal elections.

Because they are registered with the Internal Revenue Service as nonprofits, neither Americans for Responsible Leadership nor the other two group are required by federal law to disclose where money they contribute comes from.

In Arizona, Americans for Responsible Leadership has given $925,000 to the No New Taxes, No on 204 campaign, opposing Proposition 204, a measure that would enact a permanent 1 cent-per-dollar sales tax to fund education, transportation projects and human services. It has also given $600,000 to the Save Our Vote, Opposing 121 campaign, which has advocated against a proposition to overhaul the state’s primary election system.

In California the group contributed to the Small Business Action Committee PAC, which is contributing to a campaign opposing Proposition 30, a temporary tax hike, and to a campaign supporting Proposition 32, a measure to prevent labor unions from donating to political campaigns.

Americans for Responsible Leadership has also funded phone campaigns against President Barack Obama and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

The group didn’t have to give information about its contributions toward the Arizona ballot measures under the court order, but Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said that she wouldn’t be surprised if that money came from the same groups.

“I think that certainly is for Arizona to discover, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a clear connection,” Ravel said.

Ravel said that the Fair Political Practices Commission will continue to investigate where the California money came from.

“We still don’t have sufficient information because they have basically funneled it through many different groups,” she said.

Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said that donors might funnel money through these types of groups because they don’t want their identities known.

“It certainly presents transparency issues,” Novak said.

Phillip Ung, a policy advocate with California Common Cause, which filed the complaint that led to Monday’s disclosure, said the group hopes to eventually learn the real source of the money.

“I think, in pretty stark terms, when voters see this type of activity they know that this is an attempt by very powerful people to hide their names through these shell groups,” Ung said.

Cronkite News Service has tried repeatedly to reach leaders of Americans for Responsible Leadership, including Kirk Adams, former Arizona State House speaker, who is listed as the group’s president.

A message left at Adams’ telephone number was returned by Matt Ross, a spokesman for Americans for Responsible Leadership’s legal team.

Ross provided a settlement letter in which neither Americans for Responsible Leadership nor the Center to Protect Patient Rights acknowledged wrongdoing, and noted that both reserve the right to contest further proceedings related to the contributions.

“After late-night discussions, Americans for Responsible Leadership and the FPPC reached a settlement. The Commission has received specific documents it requested,” said Ross in an emailed statement.

Voicemails left with leaders of Americans for Job Security and with Sean Noble’s consulting group weren’t returned by late Monday afternoon.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, chairwoman of the campaign supporting Proposition 204 said that the dark money has allowed the opposing campaign to hurt the chances of the measure passing.

“To see this kind of big money come in from outside special interest groups that have an agenda is just incredibly discouraging,” Pedersen said.

The campaign opposing 204 didn’t respond to an interview request by late Monday afternoon.

Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor leading the group advocating Proposition 121, said that voters were denied a right to know during a period where they were deciding how to vote.

“I think that the bad guys won on at least that point,” Johnson said. “They were able to keep it hidden from the voters until it was too late.”

Daniel G. Newman, co-founder and president of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization tracking money and politics, said that the laws in place aren’t strong enough to make sure voters have the information they need before an election.

“I just think it’s bad enough that huge multimillion-dollar campaign checks are buying influence over the election,” Newman said. “It just brings it to a level of lawlessness when voters are in the dark about the true source of funds.”