Omaha millionaire Pete Ricketts isn't hiding his distaste for Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle, but other political donors with an ax to grind in this year's mayoral race haven't been as transparent.
A new mystery group has been running an anti-Suttle television advertisement the past few weeks, as the Omaha mayor's race heads toward the May 14 election. A state senator from Lincoln says the group has found a way to hide its donors.
The Nebraska Leadership Forum does not have to name its donors because it is officially listed as an educational group, not a political committee.
The group filed as a federal 501(c)(4) nonprofit last fall. That means it claims to have taken no official position in the Omaha mayoral race, despite the fact it began to run its ad the day after the primary.
In the ad, a calculator counts off how many days have gone by since Suttle raised property taxes, created the restaurant tax and increased the wheel tax. It then urges Omahans to call Suttle and “tell him, your failed policies are hurting Nebraska families and businesses.”
The ad seeks merely to “educate” Omahans about Suttle's tax record, and it does not tell voters to either oppose Suttle or support Jean Stothert, his Republican challenger, said Timothy Barnes, a Republican political fundraiser who is serving as the group's official executive director.
“We're an educational organization,” said Barnes.
He said the timing of the ad — so far the group has spent about $44,000 — had nothing to do with the mayor's race.
“We are educating the general public now because this is the best time for us,” said Barnes.
Another 501(c)(4) nonprofit group known as Omaha Tomorrow is also running anti-Suttle television advertisements. That group, however, has acknowledged that one of its main contributors is Ricketts, a Republican who mounted a failed U.S. Senate bid in 2006 and who has been very active in Republican politics since.
Steve Grasz, the treasurer for Omaha Tomorrow, also said the anti-Suttle advertisement that is being run by the Ricketts' group does not officially take a stand in the mayoral race.
It is simply an educational ad, said Grasz.
In the ad, a narrator says Suttle's tax record is “like a puzzle.” The narrator then goes on to list the taxes raised under Suttle's administration: “Suttle hiked your property taxes 10 percent. Suttle's restaurant tax hit families hard. And don't forget Suttle raised your wheel tax.”
Nowhere in the ad does it tell voters to either support or oppose any mayoral candidate, said Grasz.
“If you look at the ad, they're bringing an issue of public concern to the attention of the public,” said Grasz.
The ads, also about $44,000 worth, started running about a week ago.
The use of nonprofits to criticize a political candidate or a position is not new. It has been going on for several years on the national front, most notably with organizations such as Republican Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, which spent heavily in the last election cycle without ever disclosing its donors.
However, it is relatively new on the Omaha mayoral scene.
“I think it is something we've been seeing on the national level, over the past few years. And successful campaign approaches — whether good or bad in the public eye — tend to flow down to the local level,” said Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
“Most of them don't tend to pump up a candidate. They tend to trash a candidate,” said Daley.
Watchdog groups argue that such nonprofits are created solely to hide their donors. If they were campaign committees, they would have to file with the state and list all their donors who gave more than $250.
In the end, it's voters who lose, said State Sen. Bill Avery, because they'll never know what may be the motivation behind the donors or whether there is more than one person funding the ads.
Avery, a Lincoln Democrat, introduced a bill two years ago to try to define such election-year activities as political activity subject to state disclosure law. It stalled on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.
“A lot of the time, these individuals are so reluctant to be identified, they go to great lengths to hide in the dark shadows of deep secrecy, because that's where they operate best and manipulate things from the background. That doesn't promote democracy,” said Avery.
Barnes argued that it was a matter of free speech. He said donors should not have to be disclosed to engage in their constitutional right to have a public voice. Finally, Barnes said the organization was following all the federal rules and was doing nothing wrong.
Suttle's opponent has also faced fire from a mystery group.
In the primary, the Omaha Alliance for the Public Trust mailed campaign fliers that accused Stothert of supporting abortion rights and raising taxes. The group filed with the State Accountability and Disclosure Committee but said it was receiving all its funding from a Colorado group known as “Set It Straight.”
At the time, it was disclosed that former mayoral candidate Dave Nabity's campaign manager, Darold Bauer, was a friend of the Republican operative behind “Set It Straight.” Both Bauer and Nabity denied having anything to do with the group, although Bauer indicated that he may know some of the donors.
Since then, “Set It Straight” has disclosed in reports filed with the Colorado secretary of state that one of its donors was Omaha businessman Michael Simmonds, a Nabity supporter.
Simmonds, who donated $25,000 to the Colorado group, did not return a telephone call last week.
During the primary election, Stothert condemned the group's mailer and their donors, calling them “faceless cowards.”
Stothert said last week she continues to believe the public has a right to know who was paying for all these politically related ads.
However, she refused to respond to a request from Suttle's campaign, which called upon Stothert to “condemn” the ads and ask that they be removed from the airwaves.
Stothert said she saw no reason to make such a request, noting Suttle didn't denounce the fliers aimed at her during the primary.
“Jim Suttle didn't stand up (in the primary) and say, 'Make them stop,' ” said Stothert.
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