Activist group pours cash into state, federal campaigns
By STEVE BROWN
The Humane Society of the United States has spent more than $36 million on lobbying and political campaigns during the past 11 years, an examination of federal income tax and Federal Election Commission filings shows.
Of that total, $25.4 million went toward lobbying, mailings, advertising and other political activities aimed at promoting the tax-exempt organization's efforts to restrict some forms of animal agriculture and promote animal-rights issues, according to the documents.
About $11.4 million went toward direct financial aid to groups in California, Ohio and other states promoting HSUS-backed ballot measures and other political activities. Of that, $6.2 million was targeted at specific animal agriculture-related ballot measures, according to tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
Those numbers are "staggering," American Farm Bureau Federation public policy specialist Kelli Ludlum said.
HSUS campaigns have had a big impact on animal agriculture, she said.
"Ag producers' challenges used to be market-related and animal-health-related," she said. "Now activists have become even more of a worry about how they impact public perceptions with accurate or inaccurate information."
Besides HSUS-related campaigns to promote ballot measures in 18 states, two political action committees have contributed a total of $353,328 to the campaigns of 44 of the 77 members of Congress -- or sponsored advertisements on their behalf -- in Western states, Federal Election Commission records show. The PACs are Humane USA and the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
Calif. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a Republican from Palm Springs, received the largest total -- $111,541. Also receiving campaign contributions were U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both D-Calif., Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both D-Wash., and Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
"I suspect the Humane Society knows and appreciates her positions on issues of importance to them," Bono Mack political director Marc Troast said. "We appreciate all the support the congresswoman receives for doing her job."
He would not speak specifically about the reason for the contributions, but Bono Mack co-sponsored an HSUS-supported bill in 2010 requiring labels on fur products.
Blumenauer has received $29,531 from the PACs.
"Rep. Blumenauer works with a wide range of businesses, labor leaders, environmentalists and advocates across the political spectrum to form his approach to animal welfare and agriculture policy," Blumenauer spokesman Derek Schlickeisen said. "He is grateful for their support when it is given, and is also happy to agree to disagree when necessary."
HSUS honored Blumenauer as its 2007 Humane Legislator of the Year.
The Humane Society Legislative Fund also funds campaigns against congressional candidates. In 2008, the fund paid $380,000 to help defeat Rep. Joe Knollenberg, a conservative Michigan Republican. On its website, the fund reported that Democrat Gary Peters, who defeated Knollenberg, has voted "with us" on all eight of "our issues" since taking office.
The legislative fund spent $3.1 million on political activities last year, according to its IRS filing. In 2010, the fund endorsed 298 federal candidates and 63 state candidates, according to its tax return, which is a public document. The fund also "engaged in independent expenditures through television ads, direct mail, e-mail communications with our members and supporters, press releases and volunteers educating voters about animal protection candidates," fund managers wrote in the tax return.
The HSUS's participation in political campaigns has sparked complaints from members of Congress and consumer organizations claiming that a nonprofit organization should not be directly involved in politics or lobbying.
Six members of Congress last spring questioned the tax-exempt status of the HSUS in a letter to the U.S. Office of the Inspector General.
"We believe that HSUS's own public documents show beyond question that lobbying is a 'substantial part' of its activities," they wrote. "Due to this we write to request investigations by the Inspector General into HSUS's apparent improper activities and its tax-exempt status."
The members of Congress -- Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Sam Graves, Don Young, Vicky Hartzler, Jo Ann Emerson and Bill Long -- stated that in 2008 "less than one-half of 1 percent of HSUS's $99.8 million budget goes toward hands-on sheltering activities and in 2009 that number rose to only 0.8 percent."
A spokesman for Luetkemeyer said there had been no formal response to the letter as of mid-October.
In a phone interview, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said there is no corporate affiliation and no formal link between the nonprofit HSUS and the two PACs.
"The HSLF is a related 501(c)(4) that has its own board of directors," said Pacelle, who is listed in the tax return as the executive vice president of the PAC. "Related PACs are a common model in D.C., similar to civil rights groups, the NRA (and) the Farm Bureau."
He said the PACs' purposes "all relate to animal welfare," but he declined to be more specific. He also would not say how issues and candidates are chosen for funding support.
According to the HSUS website, Pacelle "is founder of Humane USA, the nonpartisan political arm of the animal protection movement, and the founder of The Humane Society Legislative Fund, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that lobbies for animal welfare legislation and works to elect humane-minded candidates to public office."
PACs are funds separate from nonprofits and other entities, and they can participate in election processes, according to the Federal Election Commission.
FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said direct contributions to candidates' political committees are generally limited to $5,000 per candidate per year.
"Independent expenditures," on the other hand, are not bound by those limits. Independent expenditures are communications not coordinated with a federal candidate or a political party. These are often paid advertising campaigns that advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.
Political activities aren't the only controversies swirling around the HSUS. In California, the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom challenged the HSUS over alleged misrepresentation in its fundraising.
"Our complaint is with the implicit, not explicit, nature of HSUS's fundraising," said Rick Berman, executive director. "According to public polling, majorities of Americans believe, mistakenly, that HSUS is a pet-shelter umbrella group, that HSUS gives most of its money to pet-shelter groups, and that HSUS is affiliated with their local pet shelter. HSUS's ads don't dispel these false notions, but perpetuate them."
Berman said HSUS raises money with images of abused and abandoned dogs and cats, yet it gives less than 1 percent of its budget to hands-on pet shelters.
"HSUS instead uses donations to bankroll an animal rights agenda, funding a bloated staff of lawyers and lobbyists to work towards ultimately eliminating the use of animals as food," he said.
He said HumaneWatch, a program of his Center for Consumer Freedom, "has heard from many shocked -- now former -- HSUS donors when they learn where HSUS' money does and doesn't go."
Berman wrote to the California attorney general seeking an investigation into the alleged misrepresentation, but he has received no reply. "We're not sure that the A.G.'s office would confirm to us whether an investigation was under way due to state law," he said.
Pacelle responded that Berman specializes in campaigns that attack public-interest groups.
"He became interested in attacking the Humane Society when he got funding from ag groups and fur groups," Pacelle said.
As to the allegation that HSUS operates no animal shelters, Pacelle said, "We never said we funded animal shelters. ... That's not in our history or in our statement."
Instead, he said, "We work to professionalize the field of animal shelters," conducting training and offering professional educational opportunities to thousands of animal shelters and sanctuaries.
"Does the Farm Bureau give money to every farm, or does it advocate for farms?" he said. "Our own programs, our best use of resources is to help the greatest number of animals."
Pacelle said the HSUS has five animal health clinics and a veterinary division. Through its programs such as rural vaccinations and emergency response, he said, "HSUS directly cares for more animals than any other organization in the country."