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Public Citizen v. Corporate Front Groups

Public Citizen News / March-April 2024

By Robert Weissman

People are complaining about Public Citizen.

Well, not people, actually – corporations and corporate front groups.

It started last year, when a far-right outfit associated with Mark Meadows, a MAGA operative and Trump’s former chief of staff, launched a furious attack on Public Citizen for our leadership in the fight against the shadowy secret spending groups.

Now, three other corporate front groups are ramping up the attack on Public Citizen.

  • The American Enterprise Institute, a so-called “think tank” that specializes in cranking out justifications for pro-corporate positions on policy issues, shrieks that we are imposing a “Woke playbook” on the government.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the main trade association for Big Business, is demanding the government turn over copious records to root out Public Citizen’s allegedly nefarious influence as, in their words, a “radical anti-trade group.”
  • The dark money outfit No Labels has urged the Department of Justice to investigate Public Citizen under the federal RICO statute — which was designed to prosecute organized crime — for an alleged “conspiracy to use retaliation, fear, intimidation, and even threats of violence.”

What’s got all these corporatists into such a tither?

Of course, we go head-to-head with corporations every day of the year. Businesses that want to exploit, rip-off, pollute, poison, underpay, overcharge, discriminate and profiteer have every reason to fear Public Citizen.

But something special happens when we challenge the tools that enable Big Business to exert undue political influence – political influence used to defend all kinds of corporate misconduct and to protect a system rigged for the corporate elite.

Let’s start with the Meadows-affiliated American Accountability Foundation (AAF), which proclaims itself to be “the one new conservative organization the Left fears most.”

The reason AAF is attacking us goes all the way back to Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations and reactionary billionaires the “right” to pour unlimited gushers of unaccountable money into our elections.

As part of our leadership in the fight against that disastrous decision, we brought together a broad network of organizations to push government agencies, corporations themselves and shareholders for disclosure of corporate political spending.

That network—which Public Citizen leads to this day—is called the Corporate Reform Coalition.

And that network is what has the Meadows-backed AAF so enraged. In fact, a recently issued 79-page screed denounced our coalition as a “motley crew” that is “ideologically motivated to suppress the speech of conservatives.”

There’s a straight throughline from the Meadows operation’s attack to the newest threat from No Labels.

No Labels is a Dark Money political operation bankrolled by multiple right-wing billionaires. It has made a lot of news over its plans to spend as much as $70 million running an “independent” candidate for president in the 2024 election.

No Labels is operating as if it were a political party or a nascent one, but — and this seems to be why it is attacking us — it is legally registered as a social welfare organization, which enables it to function as a Dark Money enterprise. (To be very clear: Public Citizen is not opposed to independent candidates and political parties. But we will challenge secret spending entities that masquerade as political parties while flouting campaign finance and election laws.)

We’ve called out No Labels on its ruse – and for that, No Labels is demanding the Department of Justice investigate us as a racketeering organization!

Here’s what we’re actually “guilty” of: Ever since the Supreme Court’s horrendous Citizens United decision, Public Citizen has been working to increase disclosure of corporate political spending, through legislation, regulation and by putting pressure directly on corporations and secret spending outfits.

That’s an existential threat to the universe of secret spending groups whose donors depend on anonymity to hide their political spending – and a matter of grave concern for the corporations and super rich individuals who are making those anonymous contributions. Which is exactly why they are attacking us so harshly.

You can be 100 percent confident that we won’t back down in the face of bullying tactics. Even more importantly, know this: The attacks are a sign of our impact. The work that Public Citizen does – that’s all of us, staff, members and donors – is making a difference.

Of course, with everything happening in the world, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But these attacks confirm how close we are to winning transformational change – not just on secret spending, but across the board on democracy. Together, that is exactly what we’re going to do.