The Group Behind The Group Behind That Sketchy Wisconsin Poll

Demonstrators inside the Wisconsin state Capitol, February 18, 2011.
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Yesterday we told you about the Franklin Center For Government and Public Integrity, the group behind the website behind that sketchy poll of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposals. But the trail doesn’t end there. Turns out, there is another group that’s behind the Franklin Center: the conservative, Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance.

The groups share a conservative philosophy and opaque financing, and it turns out that the Alliance is behind another conservative group making its presence felt in Wisconsin these days: American Majority, the organization behind last Saturday’s pro-Walker counter-rallies in Madison.

The Franklin Center, which received 501 (c)(3) charitable tax exemption status from the IRS in June 2009, says on its website that it “operates independently from any organization.” But the center’s president, Jason Stverak, told the Springfield State Journal-Register in 2009 that his group had received a “sponsorship grant” from the Alliance. And the Franklin Center has close personal ties to its parent group. Stverak, who bills himself as an “expert in non-profit journalism,” previously worked as Regional Field Director for the Alliance. Another Franklin staffer, Elizabeth Hillgrove, once spent her Koch Summer Fellowship at the Alliance.

While the Franklin center says it aims to train journalists to become “thorough, unbiased and accurate” reporters, the Alliance is an organization that helps “individuals and organizations working to promote free-market principles and policies,” according to its website. Its Chairman and CEO is Eric O’Keefe, a private investor from Wisconsin who has previously served on the Board of Directors of Wisconsin Club for Growth. According to his bio on the Alliance’s website:

Under his leadership, the Sam Adams Alliance (SAM) has established some of the most active and respected organizations in the freedom movement. Most recently, SAM set up American Majority to train potential candidates and campaign organizers and the Franklin Center, which helps train and place investigative journalists in non-profit organizations.

While he appears to no longer work for the Alliance, IRS documents reviewed by TPM show that the group’s president in 2008 was John Tsarpalas, a former Executive Director of the Illinois Republican Party.

Meghan Tisinger, director of communications for the Franklin Center, told TPM that the Alliance served as the Franklin Center’s “sponsoring organization” until Franklin obtained its 501 (c)(3) status.

“We are grateful for their support as we got off the ground and remain fans of their work,” Tisinger said. “We’re happy to collaborate with them on occasion to promote projects and other work that advance our shared goals.”

According to Tisinger, there is no longer a regular financial relationship between the two groups.

(In an interview with The Dallas Morning News in October 2009, Drew Ryun, the brother of American Majority president Ned Ryun and then the group’s national director, said that “above 75 percent” of the group’s funding at that time came from the Alliance.)

What’s unclear in all this is where the money comes from. Both the Franklin Center and the Alliance decline to reveal their donors’ identities. The Franklin Center’s website states that the group “honors and respects the wishes of its numerous supporters and donors and that is why we adhere to a policy of keeping our donors identity confidential.”

In documents filed with the IRS and the Illinois Attorney General, the Alliance states that it “declines to provide specific identifying information on its donors on the grounds that such disclosure may chill the donors’ first amendment right to associate in private with the organization.” The most recent filings TPM could find were for 2008. The documents show that the group’s total revenue rose from $1.87 million in 2007 to $4.22 million in 2008. At the same time, the group reported that the kind of support it was receiving changed. In 2007, the group reported $1.82 million in “gifts, grants, contributions, and membership fees received.” That number fell to $507K in 2008. The Alliance’s big revenue bump in 2008 came by way of $3.72 million in “other income” that the group reported without including any other details.

Documents filed with the Illinois Attorney General provide just one small additional clue. The “Notes to Financial Statements” section of the filing reveals that the Alliance received 88% of its contributions from a single multi-donor foundation.

The Alliance did not respond to several requests for comment from TPM.

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