Politics & Policy

Big Corporations Finance The War On Bush’s Judges

Why are they contributing to People for the American Way?

The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way (PFAW), which has sought to kill a number of President Bush’s judicial nominations in recent years, is preparing to play a leading role in opposing the president’s nominee for a place on the Supreme Court. But what few people know is that PFAW will do its work financed, in part, by several of the country’s leading public–and ostensibly apolitical–corporations.

A copy of PFAW’s 2003 annual report examined by National Review Online lists dozens of corporations as contributors. The companies include Sony Corporation of America, the New York Times, 20th Century Fox Television (a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), Best Buy Corporation, A&E Television Network, Eastman Kodak, NBC, Home Box Office, Inc., the Hearst Corporation, Comcast Corporation, Blockbuster, Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Sotheby’s, and Conde Nast.

Officials at some companies told NRO that their contributions were small and did not amount to an endorsement of PFAW’s policies. For example, one Comcast official, who asked that his name not be used, said the company has occasionally contributed to awards dinners held by PFAW. The official said Comcast has given PFAW about $11,000 since its first contribution in 1997. “The years that we’ve sponsored it, they’ve given awards to people who are prominent in our industry,” the official said, mentioning events held to honor media executives like Michael Fuchs and John Kluge.

When asked if contributing to PFAW meant that Comcast endorsed PFAW’s activities, the official said, “I think it’s more a reflection of the kinship we feel with the media industry honorees rather than any comment on the political beliefs of the group.”

An executive from the Hearst Corporation had a similar explanation, saying the company had purchased tables at a PFAW awards dinner for industry executives. Some representatives of other companies knew little or nothing about their organization’s contributions. “The short answer is I have no idea,” said a spokesman for 20th Century Fox Television.

An official at People for the American Way told NRO that many of the contributions went to what he described as the “educational” wing of PFAW. People for the American Way, said vice president and general counsel Elliot Mincberg, is actually two groups. One, PFAW itself, is what is known as a 501(c)(4) organization–named for the section of the Internal Revenue Service code under which it was created. While PFAW is tax exempt, contributions to it are not tax deductible, because it engages in political lobbying.

The other part of the organization is the People for the American Way Foundation, known as a 501(c)(3) organization, which is a fully tax-exempt charity. Contributions are tax deductible, and the foundation is forbidden from engaging in most lobbying activities. Indeed, the foundation bills itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan civil rights and constitutional liberties organization that promotes the values that sustain a free and diverse society.”

“We try to be pretty careful here that the C-3 does not take positions for or against judicial nominees,” Mincberg told NRO. “That’s done by the C-4, People for the American Way.” Mincberg said that most, if not all, of the corporate contributions went to the People for the American Foundation, and therefore did not support PFAW’s opposition to Bush judicial nominees. “Activity that is out there opposing nominees is not done by the C-3,” Mincberg said, “and therefore the corporations’ buying tables shouldn’t be supporting that.”

But there are questions about how “nonpartisan” the charitable foundation is. For example, Mincberg said the foundation finances the production of a report entitled “Courting Disaster,” which PFAW has produced yearly since 2000. The reports have been a running series of attacks on Bush administration policies, Senate Republicans, and the president’s judicial selections. The 2005 report, for example contains several selections like these:

The recent bruising Senate battle over Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s “nuclear option”–his destructive plan to break Senate rules and do away with more than 200 years of Senate checks and balances–was the clearest evidence yet about the high priority that the radical right places on achieving domination of the entire federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Their willingness to break the rules and upset the entire balance of power in our constitutional system in order to weaken potential opposition to radical right Court nominees shows how much is riding on the people who are named to fill the multiple vacancies expected in the coming years…

When he was running for president, President Bush said that he would use Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the two most aggressively and ideologically extreme activist justices on the Supreme Court, as his models for future appointees. Far-right leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and others are making it clear that they will settle for nothing less. Indeed, the justices now being attacked most viciously by right-wing activists are not the moderate to liberal justices, but two conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents –Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. Unfortunately, some of President Bush’s nominees to the federal appeals courts–one level below the Supreme Court–have been exactly the kind of judges the far right wants for the higher courts. That’s not encouraging for those of us who have been calling on President Bush to engage in bipartisan consultation to find consensus nominees that people from both parties could support.

“Courting Disaster” contains a small disclaimer which says, “This material is for educational purposes, is nonpartisan, and is in no way intended to influence the outcome of any election or to reflect any endorsement of, or opposition to, any candidate, political party, political action committee, or any specific judicial nominee. We urge all federal officeholders and candidates not to support ultra-conservative justices for the Supreme Court.”

Mincberg said the People for the American Way Foundation has also financed some of PFAW’s television ads in the judicial fight. The specificity of the particular ad determines whether PFAW uses foundation money to finance it–but all the ads express opposition to the president and his Republican allies. “For example, when we were talking about the filibuster issue, any of the ads that talked about [Bush nominees] Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown were done by the C-4, but some of the ads that talked about the filibuster issue generally were done by the C-3,” Mincberg said. “I try to be as careful as I can be.”

The foundation also finances PFAW’s “In the Courts” project. One part of that is a program urging the public to write letters to newspapers urging the defeat of Republican efforts to stop Democratic filibusters of Bush judicial nominees. “In the Courts” offers what the foundation calls “‘Nuclear Option’ Talking Points” for letter writers, suggestions which include selections like, “Republican leaders are seeking absolute power, and know that they can’t have it without capturing the Supreme Court. If the filibuster is eliminated, President Bush will be able to win confirmation for his most extreme Supreme Court nominees with just 50 Senate votes plus Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaker.” It’s all part of the “nonpartisan” anti-Bush crusade that has been partially financed by some of the nation’s largest public corporations.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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