In PFAW’s report “After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics,” we looked into the Iowa-based American Future Fund  which is spending millions of dollars attacking Democrats across the country. The AFF was founded by former GOP staffer Nick Ryan, whose lobbyist firm has ties to Big Agriculture, especially Iowa’s large ethanol industry. The group’s director, Katherine Polking, also works for Ryan’s lobby firm, the Concordia Group, and the AFF paid Ryan’s firm $300,000  for consulting fees.
Now, the New York Times reports  that while Ryan’s Concordia Group lobbies on behalf of the ethanol industry, Ryan’s American Future Fund received its seed money from Bruce Rastetter, the “chief executive of one of the nation’s larger ethanol companies, Hawkeye Energy Holdings.” As a 501c4 organization, the AFF does not have to disclose the sources of its funding, and in this case Rastetter’s lawyer confirmed his connections to the group. Now Ryan, a “lobbyist for four Rastetter businesses,” receives money to attack Democrats with ties to agriculture policy: “Of the 14 ‘liberal’ politicians singled out in a list [the AFF] released last month, nearly every incumbent sits on a panel with a say over energy or agriculture policy. Five sit on the Agriculture Committee; four others are on related committees with say. One candidate was a staff member on a related panel.”
When Bruce Braley, a Congressman in the crosshairs of AFF attacks, tried to visit the AFF, he “found only a rented mailbox.” The proliferation of shadowy, pro-corporate groups like the American Future Fund is a result of the substantial weakening of campaign finance laws:
The American Future Fund, organized under a tax code provision that lets donors remain anonymous, is one of dozens of groups awash in money from hidden sources and spending it at an unprecedented rate, largely on behalf of Republicans. The breadth and impact of these privately financed groups have made them, and the mystery of their backers, a campaign issue in their own right.
Through interviews with top Republican contributors and strategists, as well as a review of public records, some contours of this financing effort — including how donors are lured with the promise of anonymity — are starting to come into view.
The surge of anonymous money is the latest development in corporate America’s efforts to influence the agenda in Washington, following rules enacted several years ago banning large, unregulated gifts to political parties. Democrats first established so-called third-party groups that could legally accept unlimited money from business and unions, though most had to disclose donors. Now, as new laws and a major Supreme Court decision have removed barriers to corporate giving, Republican operatives have embraced the use of nonprofit issue groups that can keep donors’ identities secret.