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US Chamber of Commerce under fire for campaign finance

Liberal groups charge the US Chamber of Commerce with spending foreign donations on political ads targeted against Democrats. Chamber officials deny the charge, but campaign finance law makes it hard to know for sure.

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“AmChams are independent organizations that do not fund political programs in the United States,” she says in a website statement. “We're careful to ensure that we comply with all applicable laws. No foreign money is used to fund political activities. All allegations to the contrary are totally and completely false.”

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The US Chamber is one of largest interest groups spending money on political ads.

The Wesleyan Media Project, a collaboration of experts from Wesleyan University, Bowdoin College, and Washington State University, ranks the US Chamber as No. 3 in the top 10 interest-group spenders by volume and ad count. (No. 1 is the Republican Governors Association.)

Through Sept. 15, the US Chamber had spent an estimated $6.7 million on 8,462 media spots.

Of the top 10 interest groups, seven lean Republican (spending $42.5 million) and three lean Democratic (spending $16.2 million).

“One reason for the increase in overall spending has to be the fact that both Republicans and Democrats have a legitimate shot of having majorities in Congress after November’s elections,” says Travis Ridout, a political scientist at Washington State University, in the Wesleyan Media Project’s recent report. “Surely, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union donations to groups airing political ads, has also contributed to the overall increase in spending.”

When the Supreme Court issued its controversial decision in the Citizens United case, many critics warned that individual corporations would begin buying ads for candidates in federal and gubernatorial elections – presumably that would be mostly pro-business Republicans.

Keeping political donors anonymous

“But to date that has not materialized, says Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University. “Instead, we are seeing evidence of changing tactics as groups seek shelter in the rules for nonprofits that allow such organizations to withhold their donor names.”

That includes the US Chamber of Commerce, and the core of MoveOn.org's allegations are that the Chamber is using this provision illegally.

The 2010 elections come at a time when campaign-finance law is new and sometimes murky territory – both for donors and for recipients. Inevitably, that’s raised contentious political and legal questions.

“The Chamber has dispatched former Ambassador Frank Lavin to speak before foreign Chamber affiliates about what is at stake for business in the 2010 midterm elections,” writes MoveOn.org’s Justin Ruben in his letter this week to the US Justice Department. “If, as it appears, the Chamber is soliciting contributions from foreign corporations and foreign nationals while communicating to them the importance of the US elections, the Chamber is at least indirectly soliciting contributions from foreign nationals for use in connection with US elections.”

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