Jul 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Dark money fights dark money

Illustration of stacks of hundred dollar bills receding into an ever-darker distance
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An obscure progressive nonprofit called the North Fund has scaled up operations during the last two years, allowing the group to quietly work in high-profile legislative fights in Washington and state capitals.

Why it matters: The North Fund's structure — and its refusal to reveal financial contributors — make it the latest progressive nonprofit to operate in ways that obscure key financial information from the public, even as it pushes for legislation to limit the role of so-called dark money in politics.

What's new: Founded in late 2018, the North Fund's budget shot up from $9.3 million in 2019 to nearly $50 million last year, according to previously unreported records filed with state regulators in Montana.

  • It doled out nearly $18 million to other progressive groups, according to those records — primarily other nonprofit advocacy groups, but with some going to outright political organizations.
  • The North Fund also financed ballot measure campaigns across the country last year, including efforts to legalize marijuana in Montana, expand paid leave in Colorado and reform congressional redistricting in Missouri.
  • In addition, the North Fund acts as the legal umbrella for a handful of other organizations, including voting rights group Just Democracy, anti-Big Tech advocacy outfit Accountable Tech and 51 for 51, which pushes for D.C. statehood.

The big picture: The North Fund is shadowy even by the standards of D.C. advocacy groups. It has no website. Its address is a shared workspace. And in March, it won a fight against Montana officials trying to force the group to disclose its donors.

  • The North Fund's subsidiary organizations are more prominent — and are spending significant sums on some top progressive agenda items.
  • Just Democracy, for instance, recently kicked off a seven-figure ad campaign attacking Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) over her opposition to nuking the filibuster. It's also pushed heavily for federal legislation that would dramatically increase disclosure requirements for politically active nonprofits.
  • The North Fund operates as a "fiscal sponsor" for Just Democracy and other groups under its umbrella, a legal designation effectively allowing those groups to operate as any stand-alone nonprofit would but without submitting their own financial information to the IRS.
  • That's an increasingly common structure on the left, with large groups such as the Sixteen Thirty Fund seeding scores of progressive advocacy outfits and steering millions to them in ways that obscure key financial details.

What they're saying: In an emailed statement, North Fund president Jim Gerstein declined to identify any of the group's financial supporters.

  • "North Fund strictly follows all disclosure requirements at local, state and federal levels, and donors decide for themselves whether to disclose their contributions," he wrote.

Between the lines: Many progressive groups benefitting from that sort of opacity are simultaneously advocating for more political money disclosure. Their excuse is they don't want to handicap their own side in a fight against a well-funded conservative opposition.

  • "The rules are rigged against Black and Brown people," Just Democracy told Axios in a statement. "Until we win our fight to change them, we’re committed to using every tool in our toolbox to stop voter suppression and build a more just democracy."
  • That echoed comments by the Sixteen Thirty Fund's president this year.
  • Amy Kurtz said her group would "continue to level the playing field for progressives until (reform) happens."
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