New dark money group raising big dollars on promise of access to Cooper and his staff
Posted 6:00 a.m. Saturday
Updated 7:17 a.m. Saturday
Raleigh, N.C. — A recently formed nonprofit group is preparing to raise big money at the end of March by offering donors the chance to meet and mingle with Gov. Roy Cooper and the "Governor's Leadership Team," according to an invitation obtained by WRAL News.
Moving North Carolina Forward is a social welfare nonprofit. Such 501(c)(4) entities – so named for a section of the federal tax code – are frequently created to carry out campaign-like activities without the disclosure rules and donation limits that come with formal political action committees. Campaign finance advocates frequently call these nonprofits "dark money" groups because the public is in the dark about who is funding these organizations.
In this case, an invitation to Moving North Carolina Forward's event on March 30-31 at the Umstead Hotel in Cary said that the group's mission is "advocating for policies that advance economic growth, stronger schools, tolerance, and fair and legal electoral districts." That description closely tracks with the platforms of a number of Democratic candidates and groups, including Cooper's 2016 campaign.
The invitation offers a March 30 reception with the governor and "policy talks" that will be "led by special guests from the Governor's Leadership Team" the following day.
"We do have a variety of public policy issues that a group of us genuinely feel need to be addressed and discussed and that we need to advocate solutions that do help move the debate and the dialog along," said Tom Hendrickson, a member of the group's three-member board and its president.
When asked if the group was formed explicitly to help Cooper, Hendrickson did not answer the question head on. That's likely because 501(c)(4) groups have limitations with regard to how explicit their role in politics can be, even if they do end up having a political impact.
"There's a host of things that we have as priorities," Hendrickson said. "We would hope that the governor would embrace those things, and we would hope many legislators would embrace those things as well."
A spokeswoman for the governor's press office said she did not know about the group and referred questions to Cooper's campaign consultants at Nexus Strategies. Paperwork included with the group's application to make charitable solicitations in North Carolina includes Nexus' address and phone number. However, a campaign consultant with Nexus said Hendrickson should be the one to comment regarding the group's work.
Moving NC Forward, which incorporated on Dec. 28, appears to be very similar to a 501(c)(4) group created by backers of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory shortly after his election in 2012. The Foundation for North Carolina, which was later renamed Renew North Carolina, raised money through conferences that featured appearances by McCrory and aired television ads starring the governor.
Paperwork filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State's Office shows that Moving NC Forward anticipates raising at least $500,000 for its 2016-17 fiscal year. A price list attached to the invitation to its March event suggests donations ranging from $10,000 for a "supporter" to $100,000 for an "executive partner."
Due to the group's structure, it may never be legally required to disclose its donors. It's three board members include Hendrickson, Stella Adams and Jewell Wilson. All three are longtime Democratic Party donors, although Hendrickson is by far the biggest and most frequent giver. Campaign finance records show he gave $15,100 to Cooper's campaigns alone since 2000. He said his involvement in North Carolina Democratic Party politics dates to the late 1970s and former Gov. Jim Hunt's campaigns. He is a former state Democratic Party chairman.
To be clear, such groups are part of the fabric of today's political landscape, and there is not illegal about what they're doing as long as they follow IRS guidelines. But this type of activity raises the hackles of good-government campaigners, who say it provides an outlet for unregulated and undisclosed sums to make their way to powerful political figures.
"It's a reality we wish didn't exist," said Bob Phillips, director of Common Cause North Carolina, a group that lobbies for more disclosure of – and limitations on – political funding. "Sunshine may be the only thing we can do. Disclosure of who is behind the money is a reasonable thing to ask. ... We believe that's something that the public would want as well."
Hendrickson said raising money was a reality for an organization that hopes to push a public policy message.
"It costs money to communicate," he said. "If we're going to get involved in it, we need to be able to effectively communicate the message. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it well."
Asked if that would include television advertising, Hendrickson said he didn't know.
"I think there's a common agreement that we need to strengthen our schools, grow jobs, strengthen access to affordable health care and protect our environment," he said.
The group would also likely engage in discussion about House Bill 2, the nearly year-old law dealing with LGBT rights and prescribing which bathrooms in public facilities transgender individuals can use.
"You can't have a conversation about public policy or a conversation about growing jobs without HB2 coming up," he said.