Interest groups and their agents sometimes support nonprofits. The support raises questions.
“We are loud, and we speak more of a populist truth than the way people usually talk to each other in Sacramento,” said Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog’s president.
That voice, though, is funded by donors who are largely shielded from public view. Some of its money, according to a Los Angeles Times review of federal tax documents, was donated through a nonprofit operated at the time by Chris Lehane, an influential political strategist and corporate consultant.
Between 2012 and 2015, Consumer Watchdog accepted $260,000 in donations from Lehane’s group, a nonprofit called Main Street American Values. One $45,000 payment was made only weeks before Consumer Watchdog lent public support to one of Lehane’s clients, Airbnb.
“At the very least, by appearances it makes it look like money is driving the policy,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in ethics and lobbying rules.
Under federal tax law as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Consumer Watchdog is not required to reveal its donors. But Court, who has been president since 2003, in the past has frequently advocated for transparency. In a book that year, he lamented the “growth of deception” caused by donors — in his example, corporations — to groups “who hide their identities from the public.”
A major Consumer Watchdog donor was the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, which gives money to social justice and human rights efforts. For the four years beginning in 2012, federal tax returns show it gave more than $1 million to Consumer Watchdog. Over the same period, it received $955,000 in donations from Lehane’s nonprofit.