The current of dark money that has flowed into the U.S. political system over the past three years — as anonymously-funded outside groups have proliferated — depends on secrecy.
And yet, even though anonymous donors have become a commonplace part of national elections, it came as a shock last week when a little-known group with strong ties to the Koch brothers stepped forward and acknowledged itself as the source of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars given to conservative groups in 2012. Freedom Partners, as the group is now called, was a silent behemoth during the last election, able to make use of the FEC’s disclosure rules to keep itself in the shadows during a presidential campaign.
At the head of the organization is Marc Short, who serves as Freedom Partners’ president and on its board of directors. A longtime political operative who has worked for various conservative organizations and Republican politicians over the past 20 years, Short assumed his role at Freedom Partners in March 2013. A former “Koch operative,” Short is now running an organization that Koch Industries maintains operates “independently of Koch Industries.” A Freedom Partners spokesperson declined to go into details about just what role Short has in the group’s grant-making process. And so we’re left with questions, as is often the case when it comes to the world of dark money.
Most of what is known so far about Freedom Partners has come from the group itself. Freedom Partners may have chosen to come forward now at least in part because of Internal Revenue Service disclosure rules that compel it to make its grant records public. It gave Politico a sneak peek last week at the documents it will soon file with the IRS. And the group now has a public-facing website, where it offers some information about its structure and philosophy.
Freedom Partners’ donor/members are reportedly drawn from the Koch brothers’ semi-annual conferences, and membership reportedly requires paying at least $100,000 in annual dues. Freedom Partners claims “more than 200” members, but it raised more than $250 million between November 2011 and November 2012, suggesting that some members have contributed well over the minimum dues.
The group has declared its support for free markets and getting government out of the way. And its board of directors is packed with individuals who currently work or have worked for the Kochs and Koch Industries in a variety of capacities. Short’s official affiliation with the Kochs is, by comparison, relatively recent.
Short was first mentioned as linked to the Koch brothers in mid-2012. A June 2012 article in Politico described Short, along with Kevin Gentry (who serves as vice president of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation) and Tim Phillips (president of Americans for Prosperity), as “the Kochs’ liaisons to Washington’s professional conservative class.” According to Politico, Short was then serving as the Kochs’ representative at The Weaver Terrace Group, a Karl Rove-led effort to coordinate outside conservative groups’ spending in 2012.
In response to questions from TPM about Short and the organization, a Freedom Partners spokesperson offered general descriptions about Freedom Partners’ grant-making process.
“We have a long-term horizon and that [sic] we want to support organizations that will advance free markets and a free society over the long haul; not one election cycle,” Freedom Partners’ James Davis told TPM in an email. “The focus of Freedom Partners has been public education on issues such as free-market healthcare solutions, the importance of a fiscally responsible government, policies that enable entrepreneurs to grow the economy and spur job creation, and separating corporate interests from government policies. We have supported organizations that help further our organization[‘]s mission with general operating grants.”
A 1992 graduate of Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Short’s first prominent association in the political world was with Lt. Col. Oliver North. In the mid-1990s, Short worked on North’s Virginia Senate campaign and as a spokesperson and executive director of North’s Virginia-based group, The Freedom Alliance. In 1995, Short was quoted in a Washington Monthly cover story about how 20-somethings were “leaning more towards conservatism.”
“One of the big things I read was Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative,” Short told the magazine, of his political awakening. “Those themes are very universal.”
In 1998, Short was the executive director of of another Virginia conservative group, the Young America’s Foundation, when it struck a deal to purchase Rancho del Cielo, former President Ronald Reagan’s 688-acre vacation property in Santa Barbara, Calif. In October of that year, the Associated Press identified Short, who had moved to California with his wife after the sale, as the “chief keeper of the shrine.”
By the mid-2000s, Short had moved back east and into government jobs. He served as a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security and later become a spokesperson for then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). He eventually become Hutchison’s chief of staff. (According to Politico, he was hired into Hutchison’s office by Richard Ribbentrop, who now serves as executive director of Freedom Partners.) In 2008, after Hutchison began exploring a Texas gubernatorial bid, Short moved on to the House Republican Conference, where he served as chief of staff under then-Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN).
While Freedom Partners spokesperson Davis declined to provide TPM with further specifics about Short, he did offer some thoughts about why the group values secrecy.
“Unfortunately, recent IRS controversies demonstrate why it’s important to keep donor information confidential,” Davis said, referring to the IRS’ screening of applications for tax-exempt status from conservative groups. “Freedom of association without fear of government intrusion or retribution is part of the foundation of a free society, regardless of one’s policy positions.”
Short himself, who was unavailable to talk to TPM, addressed the secrecy issue in a recent interview with Politico.
“There’s a mystery around us that makes an interesting story,” Short said. “There’s also a vilification that happens that gets exaggerated when your opposition thinks you’re secretive. Our members are proud to be part of [the organization].”