Like Americans Elect, The Common Sense Coalition is a 501(c)(4) corporation. The Common Sense Coalition holds leadership in common with Americans Elect and explicitly identifies itself as continuing the mission of Americans Elect, but in its disclosure behavior it promises to be rather different from Americans Elect.
On June 20 of this year, I wrote to The Common Sense Coalition noting that it seems to have been initiated more than a year ago, also noting its writing in support of donor disclosures, and therefore requesting its Form 990 report and a list of its donors.
On June 18 John Robinson, the Executive Director of The Common Sense Coalition, wrote back in reply:
Thank you for your interest in information about the Common Sense Coalition. Our Articles of Incorporation and amendment are attached in .pdf format. Although we are not required to provide bylaws, the Board has not adopted any bylaws as of now. Our Board of Directors are listed on our website:http://thecommonsensecoalition.com/our-team. While we are not required to disclose our contributors, however, in the interest of transparency, we have a) added language to our donation site (http://thecommonsensecoalition.com/donate) noting that any and all donations made there will be publicly disclosed. and b) we will, in the near future, add a section to our website listing our contributors. In addition, our organization has not completed a full tax year and will not file a Form 990 until next year. Also, our organization has not yet prepared or filed a Form 1024 application for exemption. If you have any other questions, please do not hesitate to ask.
There are three points worth noting here.
First, the Articles of Incorporation for The Common Sense Coalition are already on the public record as required by law. The Kansas Secretary of State maintains a copy here.
Second, it appears that The Common Sense Coalition has been active since the middle 2011, and since the Articles of Incorporation for the coalition indicate a tax year ending in December, a Form 990 should have been filed. There’s a need for clarification here, and I’ve asked John Robinson to supply it.
Third, and most importantly, the Executive Director of The Common Sense Coalition has pledged in writing that “any and all donations made there will be publicly disclosed. and… we will, in the near future, add a section to our website listing our contributors.” This is an unusual step for a 501(c)(4) corporation. It’s what we should expect for any corporation that wants to involve itself in politics, but unfortunately secret funding sources have become the norm. Americans Elect never disclosed its donors. The Common Sense Coalition promises to start off on the right foot by disclosing them all, a promise that if fulfilled will make it better than normal.
Contrary to Robinson’s assertion, there’s still actually no notice of this commitment on the website of The Common Sense Coalition — but I’ll chalk that up to institutional inertia rather than malintent. In the months to come I’ll track the coalition’s performance to uphold its pledge and hope to share good news. If the coalition does keep its pledge, it can be referenced as an example of alignment with the public spirit when interacting with other corporations. More substantively, the funding sources for The Common Sense Coalition will allow us to track connections and interests associated with its activities.
Important Update, 10:30 AM: the coalition’s donation page has now been updated with a notice that is somewhat reassuring and somewhat alarming:
In the interests of transparency, we plan to release the names and amount of donations. If you would not like your donation information disclosed, please contact us after donating at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Releasing all donor information except for the donor information it doesn’t release isn’t fully transparent. In fact, you could say that the donations a 501(c)(4) corporation keeps secret are the most important ones. Let’s wait and see how The Common Sense Coalition handles disclosures in practice.
Update, August 24 2012: about two months after making its promise, The Common Sense Coalition has released the names of its donors. You can review that list of names here. There are 40 donors total, and 36 of them have been named. The 4 anonymous donors gave only 00.27% of all money contributed to the Common Sense Coalition, making the problem of anonymity not significant.