But it's still not clear who's funding that nonprofit, known as the Foundation for Accountability in Education, and the organization may never be required to reveal its donors.
"They don't have to tell you anything," said Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates more transparency in campaign funding.
Over the past two weeks, the Foundation for Accountability in Education has been running radio advertisements celebrating the Feb. 28 passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, a bill that would give parents in "failing" school districts a tax credit for moving their children to private schools, or allow them to move to a non-failing public school with the possibility of a tax credit to defray the cost.
The act has faced harsh criticism from educators, in part because of the way it was passed. The bill was originally called the School Flexibility Act and was designed to allow schools to opt out of some regulations for educational reasons. The tax-credit wording was added in the final hours before the bill's passage.
State records show that the Foundation for Accountability in Education was formed March 8, with Marsh as one of three members of the organization's board of directors. The group began running radio ads in support of the Accountability Act days later.
Marsh said last week that the goal of the organization was to "get the public educated about the legislation" and counter what he called "lies" about the Accountability Act.
Marsh's comment was an apparent reference to ads run by Alabama Education Association, the state's largest professional association for teachers, which opposes the Accountability Act.
Marsh's foundation has yet to disclose who its donors are and how much it has paid for its ad campaign. State records show the organization was formed as a 501(c)(4), a kind of nonprofit that has existed for decades, but has drawn increasing criticism in recent years from advocates of campaign finance transparency. Groups labeled as 501(c)(4)s are allowed to run ads about political issues, but aren't required to disclose the identities of their donors.
All three board members of the Foundation for Accountability in Education have declined to comment on the group's donors or how much money it has spent.
"I don't have any of that information in front of me," said board member Kate Anderson, a Birmingham-based Republican fundraising consultant. "You'll have to talk to Sen. Marsh."
Attempts to reach Marsh on Tuesday were unsuccessful. Last week, Marsh said he didn't know how much money the group had.
Board member Ashley Newman, who is listed as the incorporator of the foundation, also declined to comment on the group’s donors and expenditures.
"The Foundation for Accountability in Education is a non-profit group organized under the federal tax code," she wrote in an email to The Star. "The federal laws governing such groups mandate strict reporting procedures and IRS disclosures, and the Foundation … is fully following each of these reporting requirements and will continue to do so."
Allison, of the Sunlight Foundation, said 501(c)(4) groups, like other nonprofits, must file annual forms with the IRS that list the group's highest-paid officials and other information, but do not have to disclose donors.
He said the groups sometimes avoid advertising on television in the nation's largest TV markets. The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to keep records, open to the public, of all political ad purchases. In the top TV markets, the FCC requires stations to put those records online.
By running radio ads and television ads in small markets, Allison said, the groups make it harder for outsiders to get a running total of the money they spend.
"You'd have to go to every station and get the public records," he said.
The Star requested public advertising files from WAAX, a Rainbow City-based talk radio station that has run ads from both the AEA and the Foundation for Accountability in Education. Those records show the foundation buying three radio spots on WAAX for $1,120.
The records also show that a New York-based advertising company made out a check for $18,742.50 to Clear Channel Radio on behalf of the Foundation for Accountability in Education.
Clear Channel is the parent company of WAAX. Employees at the station said the check was for ad purchases at multiple stations across the Clear Channel chain.
The station also had a file on March expenditures from the AEA, which opposes the new law. The file showed the AEA's Montgomery-based ad buyer writing checks for $419 for $321 and for $617 for spots on the station in March, though some of those purchases appear to have been cancelled, according to notes in the file.
It wasn’t clear how many of those purchases were for advertisements against the Accountability Act. The AEA has also been running local radio ads that urge parents to spur child development by asking their young children to count change and read from restaurant menus.
The WAAX file did not contain a check for statewide ad buys by AEA through Clear Channel, though reports from news organizations outside the WAAX coverage area suggest the AEA ads are running in multiple markets.
Files from Anniston radio station WDNG show the Foundation for Accountability in Education paid $600 for ads at that station. Station staff said they had no ad purchases from AEA in March.
Attempts to reach AEA executive secretary Henry Mabry through the group's public relations consultant were unsuccessful late Tuesday. Mabry told The Star last week that he didn’t know how much money the organization had devoted to ads against the Accountability Act.
AEA is bankrolled largely by the donations of educators across the state, who pay monthly membership dues. In past election cycles, the group has been known to run hard-to-trace political ads, passing money through chains of PACs and effectively hiding the source of an advertisement’s funding. After Republicans took over the Legislature in 2010, they passed a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers, in part to put a halt to the AEA’s PAC networks.
Still, recently passed campaign laws may not be enough to force all political groups to disclose their expenditures. Julie Sinclair, elections attorney for the Secretary of State’s office, said she doubted the most recent revisions to the state Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) would require organizations to report expenses in campaigns commenting on already-passed legislation.
“I guess someone could go out and spend $10,000 on ads saying the FCPA is full of holes and and needs to be repaired,” she said. “I guess the FCPA doesn’t cover that.”
Sinclair said she’s still encouraging groups to play it safe and report their spending.
“I tell everyone who calls, disclose, disclose, disclose,” she said. “If you do, it can’t hurt you, and if you don’t there’s a possibility that it’s something you should have disclosed.”
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star. Broadcast issue ad purchases for March
|Alabama Education Foundation||Foundation for Accountability in Education|