Since it formed in 2011, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been under siege from financial institutions. Senate Republicans tried very hard to stop it from functioning at all, and since then they've tried to "tighten the leash" on the agency. Nearly five years since it officially opened, a new dark money group is taking aim at the agency -- and no one has any idea who's behind it.
Protect America's Consumers is a 501(c)(4) group that incorporated in November 2015. Its registered agent is North Rock Reports LLC, located at the same address in Warrenton, Va., as the law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky. According to Politico, "The firm specializes in untraceable pressure groups for conservative causes." In 2012, Bloomberg News reported that the firm was tied to groups that had spent more than $250 million on the 2012 election, including Karl Rove's American Crossroads. In 2015, the firm represented the super PAC Pursuing America's Greatness before the U.S. District Court in D.C., defending its right to use Mike Huckabee's name in its communications. Jill Vogel, a partner at the firm, is also a Virginia state senator; her website describes the firm as "a law firm that specializes in charity and nonprofit organizations, election law, and ethics."
Another anti-CFPB organization, the U.S. Consumer Coalition (USCC), has distanced itself from Protect America's Consumers, describing the group as an "attempt to trade on USCC's successful CFPB reform campaign, the Consumer Protection Initiative."
That might be because Protect America's Consumers ads are controversial. They hit the CFPB for spending lavishly on a new renovation, though that's up for debate, and for alleged racial discrimination. Their most-viewed ad on YouTube is titled "#SaveCFPB," saying, "The intentions of the CFPB were good." The ads include quotes from Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters, Calif., Keith Ellison, Minn., and Al Green, Texas, but all three have said their quotes were taken out of context. As Sam Brodey of MinnPost wrote:
Ellison thinks the ads are bogus -- especially for the implication that he has some major problem with the bureau -- and he'd like to let the people behind the ads know as much. There's just one problem: Nobody knows who's paying for them.
Because of Protect America's Consumers' 501(c)(4) status, we know very little about who actually runs this group. Its press releases list Steve Gates as the spokesman; Gates was the senior communications director at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal advocacy group that has spent millions on lobbying in the past. (It has since downsized.) According to Mother Jones:
ACCCE is best known for its ties to Bonner & Associates, the lobbying firm that got caught sending forged letters to Democratic members of Congress this summer. The letters, putatively written on behalf of military veterans and local chapters of civil rights groups, opposed the Waxman-Markey energy bill. In late October, congressional investigators found that ACCCE knew that Bonner was sending out phony letters on its behalf, but waited to tip off lawmakers until after they'd voted on the bill.
According to his LinkedIn page, Gates also works for Atlas Advocacy, where he "provides executive-level strategic guidance for multiple communications and social media projects in support of diverse public affairs clients." Its website boasts of a "multi-level integrated advocacy approach" and warns of "increasing transparency demands":
Spend smarter, not bigger. We use advertising as a surgical tool designed to take your message to a targeted audience, not the masses. We create messaging that slices through today's oversaturated media environment to stand out from the crowd. Our media planning team focuses on finding unique pathways so that your message is delivered to the audience that matters.
Gates initially indicated he would be willing to comment for this story, but stopped responding after I sent him a list of questions.
Other than Gates and the ties to Holtzman Vogel, we know nothing about who runs the group, who funds it or what their goal is. Gates told Politico that the site "doesn't have any information about the group's sponsors, because 'we don't want this to be seen as a partisan issue.'" He also denied that there was any link to the Koch brothers, who have heavily funded other groups that were incorporated by Holtzman Vogel, saying he's a registered Democrat.
It's also very difficult to find out how many ads Protect America's Consumers is running and where. According to a press release on its site, the group is running ads in Montana, North Dakota, Indiana and West Virginia. The ads "urge the taxpayers in those states to contact Senators Donnelly, Tester, Heitkamp and Manchin to encourage them to reform the CFPB." All but Manchin are on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Donnelly is on the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection.
But no FCC disclosures have been posted online about these ads, meaning the group hasn't run any ads on broadcast TV. A spokesperson for Kantar Media, a company that tracks advertising, said, "[Protect America's Consumers] appear to be limiting their ad campaign to the most popular cable news networks in a handful of markets." I visited Comcast's D.C. public file location and found the group spent $22,172 on ads in D.C. on Comcast stations since February. Tim Kay, director of political strategy at NCC Media, which tracks cable news, told me the group has spent $9,000 on ads in each of the four states listed in the press release, purchasing amounts between 56 spots (Indiana) and 425 spots (Montana). The ads ran on the same channels in every state: Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the History channel. All of this means it spent about $58,000 on TV ads overall. The group's also been buying promoted tweets on Twitter.
Another campaign has popped up in response to Protect America's Consumers: Protect Consumers From Protect America's Consumers. A joint project of Allied Progress and American Family Voices, the website criticizes Protect America's Consumers as "a shady front group," calling it an "astroturf" campaign against the CFPB. The site debunks some of Protect America's Consumers' claims and includes a form to write your senator and tell them you support the CFPB. The site states: "Unlike the shadowy insiders behind the astroturf group 'Protect America's Consumers,' we're proud of who we are."
Compared to Protect America's Consumers, that's certainly true. Allied Progress and American Family Voices both have publicly listed addresses and phone numbers, easily identified executive directors and a range of issues that they work on -- meaning that, unlike Protect America's Consumers, they weren't set up solely to campaign on one issue. Protect America's Consumers doesn't even make the name of the person who registered their website public; their site is registered to "Whoisguard Protected" in Panama City, a firm that exists to protect the identity of domain owners. And I was able to reach by phone both Karl Frisch and Mike Lux, the executive directors of Allied Progress and American Family Voices respectively.
But they aren't perfectly transparent. Allied Progress is too new to appear in any nonprofit databases because, like Protect America's Consumers, they haven't filed a 990 yet, the form that lists out essential information on 501(c) groups. And as a nonprofit like Protect America's Consumers, it isn't required to disclose its donors. That's also true of American Family Voices, though that group has existed since 2000.
Reps. Waters, Ellison and Green have written to the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate Protect America's Consumers and its nonprofit status; that might be our only hope of finding out who's behind the organization. Aside from that, unless the group tells us, we might never find out who's spending this money to take down the CFPB.