Citizens for Protecting North Carolina Schools, Fair Courts NC, NC Common Ground and Aim Higher Now are all advocacy groups tied to the same Democratic lawyer.
By Travis Fain, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — A dark money group with ties to prominent Democrats is funding attack ads around the state through various assumed names.
Between these groups, the effort has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into television ads, Facebook ads and mailers.
An entity called Fair Courts Now has been funding Facebook ads for months, targeting Republican legislators over changes to the state courts system that the GOP majority in Raleigh has passed or proposed. The group funded television commercials on similar issues earlier this year.
It has been joined by NC Common Ground, which is behind Facebook ads targeting state legislators on environmental issues. The group's ads also went on television recently in the Greensboro area against a trio of Republican legislators.
These two groups, and a third one called Aim Higher Now, all track back to North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, a nonprofit that goes back to at least 2011. It is run, at least in part, by Michael Weisel, a go-to elections attorney for the political left in North Carolina. In May, the group filed paperwork in Wake County to create assumed names for its campaigns.
NC Citizens is a 501(c)(4) under the federal tax code, and its current donors are not publicly known. The last time it filed campaign finance paperwork with the state was in early 2015.
Weisel declined to comment, beyond saying that the groups are in compliance with the law.
The IRS considers 501(c)(4)s to be social welfare organizations, and the law allows them to keep donors secret. They're allowed to engage in some political activity, but that can't be their primary activity. They're often called dark money groups, and they're common in modern politics.
"The world we live in these days," said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. "All sides play the game."
Some information can be gleaned from the public portion of NC Citizens' 990 tax forms.
As of 2015, the group listed J. Andy Penry, a Raleigh attorney and a six-figure donor to left-leaning causes over the decades in North Carolina, as director and president. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Penry to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement this year, and Penry now chairs the board.
He told WRAL News this week that he's no longer involved with NC Citizens.
Jessica Laurenz was also listed as a board director in 2015. She's the state director for America Votes, and in 2013, she acknowledged authorship of a leaked memo that broke down a political strategy to weaken then-Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP majority in the General Assembly.
Republican leaders still bring up the "eviscerate memo," which among other things laid out a press and political strategy to "eviscerate the leadership and weaken their ability to govern."
Laurenz declined to comment this week on NC Citizens or its associated groups, referring questions to Weisel.
Older campaign finance forms provide some information about past donors, which include the Americas Families First Action Fund, Wake Citizens for Good Government PAC, NC Futures Action Fund and NC Advocates for Justice. The group's largest known donor is the National Education Association, a national teacher lobbying group, which gave $180,000 in October 2012.
The NEA's press office didn't return messages Friday seeking more recent information.
Fair Courts Now
Democrats have made it clear that GOP changes to the state's judiciary will be a major issue going into November's legislative elections. That intensified during the just-ended legislative session that saw Republicans pass measures to move gubernatorial judicial appointment powers to the General Assembly.
Fair Courts Now, which has an associated group called Fair Courts NC, has pushed the issue for months. It bought more than 300 Facebook ads, according to Facebook's new database of political ads. The group had 62 Facebook ads active as of Wednesday.
In January, the group kicked off a campaign with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is run by Eric Holder, attorney general under President Barack Obama. The NDRC said it would invest $25,000 "to fight partisan attempts to rig the judicial system in North Carolina."
Progress NC, a well-known player in North Carolina politics, was also involved. Executive Director Gerrick Brenner said at the time that the name Fair Courts Now was "basically a branding mechanism."
Asked whether people should know who's paying for political messages, Brenner said they should. But that's not the law.
"These are the rules of the road," Brenner said at the time. "Congress has had the opportunity to change the rules. They've refused to do it."
NC Common Ground
Common Ground is a newer advertising push focused on environmental issues.
The group has an ad running in the Greensboro area against Sen. Trudy Wade and Reps.
John Faircloth and Jon Hardister, all R-Guilford, accusing them of doing "the old two-step dance in Raleigh," saying they take campaign donations from Duke Energy and then vote with the company on coal ash legislation.
The group has also put money into nearly 30 different Facebook ads in the last month, each targeting environmental issues. Some deal with hog waste and farm legislation the General Assembly passed this session to shield farms from nuisance lawsuits, others with coal ash, others with water quality and "chemicals in your water," an apparent reference to manufacturer Chemours and the unregulated compound GenX found in the Cape Fear River and in groundwater.
Facebook's ad database indicates the group has spent between $20,000 and $100,000 on these ads. The database gives ranges, and the ads most commonly cost $1,000 to $5,000 apiece, which is good for 50,000 to 100,000 impressions on the social media site.
The ads primarily target Republican legislators, though five Democrats made the list as well. All occupy seats considered safe for Democrats in the coming legislative elections.
Common Ground's goal is to educate voters with a focus on economic fairness, education and a clean environment, according to its website, which appears to be a clone of commonsensenc.org.
"One of the major reasons people don't participate in our democracy ... is a lack of information," the group says on its site.
Aim Higher Now
NC Citizens has a third assumed name, according to Wake County business records: Aim Higher Now.
Based on its website and social media presence, this an engagement arm, training volunteers, knocking on doors, making phone calls and working with other progressive groups. It lists its top issues as public school investment, voting rights, environmental issues and "economic opportunity that benefits everyone."
The group names organizers on its website in Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford and New Hanover counties, but none responded to WRAL News' requests for comment.