Shadow Master: San Antonio Adman Brad Parscale’s ‘Dark Money’ Group Spent $4.3 Million Last Year to Back Pro-Trump Candidates

Photo by David Fitzgerald-Web Summit via Sportsfile
Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale’s first year in “dark money” politics was no timid affair. New tax documents show Trump might even say the one-time San Antonio web designer and ad exec made his entrance “bigly.”

According to a recent federal tax return, the Parscale-founded America First Policies Inc. spent $4.3 million to tip campaigns in favor of pro-Trump candidates during 2017, its first year of operation. That’s on top of $7.5 million spent on lobbying activities for the period.

Because the group is organized as a nonprofit — the trick dark-money groups use to ease reporting requirements — it’s not required to reveal the identities of its donors. Recent corporate disclosures, however, placed Reynolds American, CVS Pharmacies and a leading big-pharma group among the check writers.

“The donors here are basically benefitting Trump, and they’re doing it with secret money,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that seeks to curb big money’s role in politics. “So, there’s no way to know exactly how the money’s being spent and whether people are buying influence with those contributions.”

America First Policies didn’t respond to the Current’s interview request, nor did Mark Serrano, an attorney who previously served as a media handler for Parscale, who now resides in Florida.

Further muddying the trail, the vague descriptions in America First Policies’ tax filing appear to show a discrepancy between the amount of money the group reported spending on political activities in earlier federal disclosures. In earlier Federal Elections Commission filings, it reported spending just $1.97 million on political activities and $245,000 on electioneering communications in 2017, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

However, discrepancies aren’t necessarily a red flag for illegal activity, Werthheimer cautions. That’s because dark money groups need not provide an exhaustive breakdown of how they categorize their expenditures. The separate filings could be counting apples and oranges.

Citizens United

Dark money has flooded into politics since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which lets corporations and nonprofits spend unlimited cash on political activity. While federal rules require political action committees to disclose their donors, there’s historically been no such requirement for nonprofits.

Parscale and other top Trump campaign operatives took advantage of that loophole in January 2017 when they formed America First Policies. One of Parscale’s partners in the venture — at least at its formation — was Rick Gates, the one-time deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, both of whom were swept up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s net.

In its tax filing, America First Policies is transparent about its agenda if not its finances. Its uses TV ads, digital pushes, surveys and other “grassroots advocacy” to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, push for tax cuts and immigration policy changes.

Regardless of how it fares on those issues, Parscale appears to be a key beneficiary of America First Policies’ spending, according to its Internal Revenue Service filing. Parscale Strategy LLC, the Florida-based firm he formed to do political work, received $2.7 million in payments last year.

Hidden Agendas

Even if the tax filing doesn’t shed much light on America First Policies’ spending or donors, recent corporate filings and tax records have pulled back the curtain — at least partially.

The group’s known 2017 corporate donors included Reynolds American ($1.5 million), Southern Company ($1 million), CVS Pharmacy ($500,000) and Dow Chemical ($100,000), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, trade group disclosed a $2.5 million contribution in a recent tax filing.

It’s worth noting that CVS, Dow and Southern this summer announced they’d end their donations after news outlets reported on racist, sexist, anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim comments made by America First Policies staffers, including director of advocacy Carl Higbie. Higbie resigned after CNN unearthed a radio interview in which he said the “high percentage of people on welfare in the black race” was due to its “lax” morals.  

But even if those donors back out, America First Policies isn’t likely to come up short. Its tax return lists secret donors who gave an additional $10.5 million combined.

Indeed, the source of three quarters of its funding is still unknown. And that anonymity is exactly the benefit that dark-money groups offer potential contributors.

“These groups are dangerous to democracy,” America 21’s Werthheimer said. “They are set up to allow big donors to give secret contributions to benefit officeholders and candidates with no way to impose accountability on whether government policies are being sold.”

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