Franklin Center Top Donor Is Right-Wing's "Dark Money ATM"

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

Nearly all of the 2011 funding for the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which oversees state news sites nationwide, came from a single foundation that has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing causes, according to a recent report of the Center for Public Integrity.

CPI detailed that the foundation, Donors Trust, provided 95 percent of the Franklin Center funding in 2011, citing Internal Revenue Service documents. The Center uses that funding to support websites and affiliates providing free statehouse reporting from a "pro-taxpayer, pro-liberty, free market perspective" to local newspapers and other media across the country.

The Center, which Media Matters highlighted in a lengthy July 2012 report, has launched more than 50 news sites covering state government in 39 states since it began in 2009 and claims to provide 10 percent of all state government news in the United States.

Since it was created in 1999, Donors Trust and its affiliated organization, Donors Capital Fund, have raised more than $500 million from various individuals and organizations, among them billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, and doled out $400 million to a constellation of right-wing causes. That includes $86 million distributed in 2011 alone.

Donors Trust gives many of its funding sources a way to hide their donations or "pass-through" money to various right-leaning organizations and media outlets, many of whom promote free-market ideas. The size and character of these donations has earned the group the moniker "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement."

The $6.3 million donation to the Franklin Center in 2011 was the second-largest gift made that year by Donors Trust. Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund had previously given a combined contribution of $25,000 to the Franklin Center in 2010.

Major Donors Trust contributors include the Charles Koch-controlled Knowledge and Progress Fund.

Marcus Owens, the former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, told CPI, "Koch is among an exclusive pool of donors who have used Donors Trust as a 'pass-through.' It obscures the source of the money. It becomes a grant from Donors Trust, not a grant from the Koch brothers."

CPI produced this graphic detailing the flow of money in recent years from Koch-backed and other right-wing foundations through Donors Trust to a variety of conservative groups.

The Franklin Center is also staffed by veterans of groups affiliated with Charles Koch and his brother, David.

Steven Greenhut, Franklin Center's vice president of journalism, was listed as a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has received significant funding from foundations headed by the Koch Brothers.

Other top Franklin Center staffers with current or past Koch ties include Erik Telford, the Franklin Center's vice president of strategic initiatives & outreach; Mary Ellen Beatty, Franklin Center director of citizen outreach; Alicia Barnaby, Coalitions Coordinator; and the Franklin Center's director of development, Matt Hauck.

The group's editors have claimed that their "professional journalism" work is walled off from the organization's more nakedly political operations that include seminars and webinars promoting conservative journalism coverage with staffers from The Daily Caller and TownHall.com. They contend their "pro-taxpayer, pro-liberty, free market perspective" doesn't compromise their accuracy or independence.

Asked about the latest funding revelations, Franklin Center's Director of Communications, Michael Moroney, sought to dispel suggestions that the Center's work is slanted, telling Media Matters in an email statement:

The Franklin Center is arguably the leader in the emerging non-profit journalism sphere and adheres to the highest degree of journalistic integrity. Even our harshest critics have found nothing wrong with our journalism, produced by a professional team of experienced, long-time newspaper reporters and editors. It's no surprise that our work has been used in hundreds of outlets across the country, including progressive-leaning outlets like The Atlantic and MSNBC.

Moroney also wrote that it was "ironic" that Media Matters would cite a report from CPI, which has received funding from a similar organization on the left, the Tides Foundation. The CPI story noted that the organization had received funding from Tides, as has Media Matters

Mother Jones, whose non-profit arm has also received Tides funding, reports that "Donors Trust's strategic intent is far narrower and more coherent than Tides'. The groups funded by Donors Trust more or less pursue the same agenda--eliminate regulations, kneecap unions, shrink government, and transfer more power to the private sector." 

Many journalism professionals -- even newspaper editors who reprint the work of Franklin Center affiliates in their own pages - have spoken warily of the group's ideological bent.

In Iowa, The Telegraph Herald of Dubuque -- which has been publishing articles from IowaPolitics.com, a Franklin Center site, since April 2011 -- noted reader concerns in a lengthy January 2012 column by Executive Editor Brian Cooper that stated, "we approached their content with caution."

At least two state legislative correspondent organizations, in Ohio and Idaho, have denied press credentials to Franklin Center reporters because of the organization's conflicts.

As Media Matters reported last year, the Franklin Center has its origins in the Sam Adams Alliance, a non-profit organization that promotes free-market Tea Party-style citizen activism, which "helped launch" the Franklin Center in 2009, reportedly providing the nascent organization with "seed money," according to the National Journal. 

The Franklin Center is not legally required to identify its donors, but disclosure forms from other large conservative grant-making organizations offered a glimpse at the Franklin Center's subsequent funding sources prior to the influx of Donors Trust funding. The Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the largest and most influential conservative foundations, awarded the Franklin Center two grants in 2010 worth $190,500, both earmarked for "state-based reporting efforts in Wisconsin," according to disclosure forms. The Bradley Foundation is also a major Donors Trust funding source. 

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Center for Public Integrity, Franklin Center
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Koch Brothers
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