Why is GOP mega-donor Art Pope distancing himself from controversial big-money groups?

Speaking this week outside the U.S. Supreme Court, Rev. William Barber of the N.C. NAACP warned America of what happens when political money goes unchecked, pointing to the example of Art Pope in North Carolina. (Still from C-SPAN video of the event.)

Nick Nyhart of the campaign finance watchdog group Public Campaign wrote an op-ed for a North Carolina newspaper last week that's set off a war of words with the state's leading conservative mega-donor, Art Pope, whose big-money politicking and unusual level of political influence have landed him in the national spotlight again.

Published in The News & Observer of Raleigh, Nyhart's op-ed, titled "Flood of campaign money would drown voter voices," was written to draw attention to this week's oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case McCutcheon v. FEC, in which campaign finance lawbreaking Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are asking for the elimination of aggregate campaign contribution limits.

Nyhart warned of the hazards of further opening the floodgates for big money into the political system, pointing to the controversial role in North Carolina politics of Pope, now state budget director under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory:

After the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010 and allowed corporations to contribute unlimited amounts to super PACs, millionaire Art Pope pumped money into super PACs and nonprofit organizations he controlled, which then spread propaganda about non-existent voter fraud and funded the campaigns of sympathetic legislative candidates.

Nyhart's op-ed brought a swift and pointed response from Pope in a letter to the editor that ran in the paper's print edition the following day. Titled "The voters spoke," Pope declared unequivocally:

I and my company have never given money to super PACs, and none of the organizations I worked with in 2010 did any election campaigning under Citizens United.

But as Facing South has documented in a series of investigations, Pope and his company, North Carolina-based discount retail chain Variety Wholesalers, have in fact generously supported independent political groups -- those not formally affiliated with either a party or a candidate -- that helped Republicans win state office. Such entities are often referred to as "super PACs," a term that was coined by a National Journal reporter to describe outside spending groups.

Federal and state campaign finance reports show that in 2010 Variety gave at least $470,000 to Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action, and Real Jobs NC -- all outside spending groups that were involved in state races that year. In 2012, Variety put $100,000 into Real Jobs NC. In all, those groups spent over $2.2 million targeting state races in 2010 and another $1.4 million in the 2012 election cycle.

And Pope is not merely some distant donor to these groups but has close ties to them.

Until he was appointed to serve as North Carolina's budget director this year, Pope was one of four members of AFP's national board, and his family foundation has been one of the largest institutional funders of the AFP Foundation, which in turn is allowed to share funds with the independent spending group for general operating support.

Pope co-founded Real Jobs NC, and Variety Stores contributed $200,000 to the group in 2010. And Civitas Action is the political advocacy arm of the Civitas Institute, a North Carolina think tank founded and almost wholly funded by Pope; in 2010 Civitas Action received at least $190,000 from Variety. Both groups spent generously that election cycle on TV ads and mailers attacking Democrats.

So is Pope lying when he says he and his company have never given money to super PACs and has not campaigned under Citizens United?

Bob Hall of the campaign watchdog group Democracy North Carolina says no -- but he characterizes Pope's rebuttal of Nyhart as making a "distinction without a difference."

Hall explains that while the term "super PAC" has come to be applied generally to groups that put outside money into the election system, it's technically a committee that specifically tells its targets to vote for or against a particular politician -- something that the Pope-affiliated groups have avoided.

"His committees didn't do that," Hall said. "But they sponsored nasty ads with the same result."

For example, Real Jobs NC ran an ad in 2010 that criticized Democratic state Rep. Jane Whilden for having voted "to allow your property taxes to fund local politicians' campaigns." The ad referred to to a bill Whilden voted for that simply allowed cities to consider campaign finance reform -- long a target for Pope and his ideological influence network. Real Jobs NC's claims to the contrary, the bill did not have any provisions directing property taxes to campaigns. Whilden went on to lose to Republican challenger Tim Moffitt, who benefited from $16,000 in direct campaign contributions that year from Pope and his close family members.

That same year, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action spent several hundred thousands dollars on ads targeting conservative Democratic state Sen. John Snow. One TV ad by Real Jobs NC criticized Snow for voting to help build a pier with an aquarium on the coast. The ad misleadingly implied that Snow -- who represented a district in the mountains -- came up with the idea. "We've lost jobs," said an actress in the ad. "John Snow's solution for our economy? 'Go fish!'" Another mailer ad decorated with a cartoon pig criticized the pier as one of Snow's "pork projects" and criticized him for "wasting our tax dollars." Snow lost by fewer than 200 votes to Republican Jim Davis, who also received $16,000 in direct contributions that year from Pope and his family.

But none of the ads from Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action explicitly said "Vote for This Guy" or "Vote Against That Guy." They were carefully worded to remain in the realm of issue advocacy and to avoid open electioneering, thus allowing Pope to claim that the groups are not super PACs and that his money did not go to support election campaigning.

As for Citizens United, it's true that Pope was pouring his corporate money into politics even before that decision -- activity that resulted in a political advocacy group his company financed being the target of complaints filed with state elections officials.

In 2006, Republican state Rep. Richard Morgan, under fire for his efforts as a House leader to cooperate with Democrats in an evenly divided chamber, was facing a primary challenge from Joe Boylan, who got the backing of a group called the Republican Legislative Majority of North Carolina -- a group financed by Variety Wholesalers. RLM sponsored baseball-themed mailers urging voters to "Call Richard Morgan out."

Morgan lost the race and filed a complaint with the state elections board charging that RLM had used illegal corporate contributions to defeat him. Hall at Democracy North Carolina filed a similar complaint, pointing to a state law banning corporations from making "any expenditure to support or oppose the nomination or election of a clearly identified candidate."

But RLM's attorney's argued that no laws were violated because the ads didn't use the words that the law says constitute "express advocacy," such as "vote for," "vote against" or "reject."

In the end, the elections board sided with RLM. Pope continues to toe that fine line between issue advocacy and electioneering today.

"In some ways he's saying, which is true, that Citizens United is not the thing that gave him permission" to spend corporate money in politics, says Hall. "But it expanded it."

Even the executive director of Real Jobs NC, Roger Knight, acknowledged as much, telling Jane Mayer of The New Yorker that the court's decision made it easier to raise money because it allowed his group to direct its fundraising efforts toward businesses.

Meanwhile, as Pope attempts to distance himself from controversial big-money politics, North Carolina activists continue to shine a spotlight on his outsized influence and what it has wrought.

As oral arguments were about to get underway at the Supreme Court in the McCutcheon case Tuesday, campaign finance reform advocates held a rally outside calling on the justices to uphold contribution limits. Among those who spoke was Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, architect of the Moral Monday movement that led to mass protests and arrests for civil disobedience at the legislature this year, and a target of attacks by Pope's network.

Speaking about the changes in his state since Pope helped finance a Republican takeover, including the nation's most restrictive voting bill and new tax policies that penalize the poor and benefit the rich, Barber noted that he spoke from experience about what unchecked amounts of money can do (he appears 38 minutes into the C-SPAN video):

We have our own McCutcheon in North Carolina; his name is Art Pope. And the danger of this is that it is not theory. America, hear me today. If you want to know what happens when money is unchecked, look at what has happened down in North Carolina. In fact, in North Carolina, we say, my sister, that we are living in a time where we have the Pope in the Vatican calling for us to stand up and stand with the poor and to honor our deepest moral values, and down in North Carolina we have Art Pope in essence saying spend up, buy up power and drive your political agenda.

In essence we are in a tale of two Popes.

What happened in North Carolina is dangerous, and I have come here to bear witness to the power of ordinary people. What happened in North Carolina can happen anywhere. That's why we must stand up. And when we stand up and say no, when we refuse to take it anymore, we can stop the corrupt vote-buying that creates government of the obscenely rich, by the obscenely rich, and for the obscenely rich.