Topeka — They're called 527s.
And in recent years, the mostly unregulated and nearly hidden political action committees have been used to pump millions of dollars into influencing elections, according to a new report from the Center for Public Integrity.
The 527 PACs -- named after the Internal Revenue Service code section that makes them tax-exempt -- can raise unlimited sums and spend that money in many ways.
In Kansas, the most active 527 PAC was one affiliated with U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. Using large contributions from Koch Industries Inc., American Indian tribes with gambling interests and others, Brownback's Restore America PAC Inc. funneled thousands of dollars into Kansas Republican races during the 2002 elections.
Aron Pilhofer, database editor for the Public Integrity project, said it was important for the public to know about the 527s because the committees were pumping lots of money into efforts to persuade voters.
"If you simply looked at state campaign finance filings or federal filings, you are missing a whole swath of the picture," Pilhofer said Thursday. "In order to get the full picture, you have to peer into all these venues."
The Public Integrity center's report, called "Silent Partners," found that nationally, Democratic organizations had used such fund-raising to a much greater degree than Republicans. Actress Jane Fonda was the top donor, giving $13 million, mostly in support of abortion rights, according to the study.
But in Kansas, Republicans outspent Democrats using the PACs.
From August 2000 through September 2002, the Restore America PAC raised $221,900 and spent $150,570 overall -- $62,877 of that in Kansas, according to the center's report.
'To elect Republicans'
The purpose of the PAC was "just to elect Republicans," said Brownback spokesman Aaron Groote.
The last report Restore America filed with the IRS showed between July 1, 2002, and Sept. 30, 2002, expenditures included $15,000 to the Kansas Republican Party, $10,000 to the Christian Coalition of Kansas and $9,838 to Friends of Phill, a campaign committee that supported Kline in his unsuccessful 2000 run for Congress.
A spokesman for Kline said the payment from Brownback was for purchase of a voter identification list. In 2002, Kline ran and won the race for state attorney general.
Brownback also gave $5,000 to the Kansas Republican Victory Fund and $2,000 each to the Republican slate of statewide candidates -- gubernatorial candidate Tim Shallenburger, Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger and Kline. Chuck McAtee, who lost in the GOP primary for attorney general, also received $2,000, according to the report.
The PAC's largest single contributor overall was Wichita-based Koch Industries, which gave $30,000, according to the center.
In the first quarter of 2001, Brownback's PAC received $42,000 from out-of-state Indian tribes with gambling interests, including $25,000 from the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, $10,000 from the Tigua Indian Reservation in El Paso, Texas, $5,000 from Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Mount Pleasant, Mich., and $2,000 from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw in Choctaw, Miss.
Brownback spokesman Groote said he didn't know why the tribes gave to Brownback, who has opposed gambling on several fronts. Spokesmen for the tribes did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
At the time the tribes were making their contributions, the Coushatta were successfully lobbying the Bush administration to block construction of a casino by a rival tribe, according to news reports.
Though registered in Washington, D.C., a 527 group called the Republican Leadership Coalition gave by far the most money in Kansas, though most of it was spent to bolster issue campaigns in 12 states.
The PAC sent $1.66 million to Kansas, with $1.25 million of that going to conservative Republican advocate John Altevogt of Edwardsville.
Altevogt used the money last year to run a radio and television ad campaign in 18 cities and 12 states that challenged Democratic Party policies. The ads were directed at minority voters.
"We took the Republican Party platform and some of the things that Bush has been proposing, and we said, 'This is what we believe and if you believe the same way, you should be voting Republican,'" Altevogt said. "We elevated the level of discourse."
He defended using 527 money -- saying it could not be spent on specific candidates, but rather on advocacy ads. That's true in the case of federal candidates. But there is no bar on using 527 money to back specific state candidates.
"I'm not interested in peddling some candidate like a can of Spam. I want to talk about ideas and issues, and that's the beauty of these 527s," Altevogt said. "We ought to be talking more about issues. That to me is just far and away superior to the canned ads these candidates have."
Tough to track
Pilhofer, with the Center for Public Integrity, said it was difficult to track funding sources for 527 committees. Up until 2000, they didn't have to report their finances.
But after Congress required that they report that information, thousands of organizations -- fearing that they would violate the law -- filed reports with the IRS when they probably didn't have to.
"It is a needle in a haystack," he said. "The other problem still remaining is even if you do find out which 527 is active in the area, you still have to go through the equivalent of reams and reams of paper. There is no place on the IRS Web site, there is no searchable database to look up individual contributors and the interlocking network of funding."
The new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court would prevent federal officials, such as Brownback, from having 527s.
Most federal officeholders have quit their 527s. Brownback's last activity with his was a year ago. But that hasn't stopped their use by special interest groups.