February 23, 2011; Source: Politico | It hasn't been an easy two years for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's public image. The group has become the nation's poster child for corporate funding for 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) tax exempt organizations engaged in electoral campaigning unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The stance has won the big business group a number of critics.

One critic is a union-supported nonprofit called U.S. Chamber Watch, which has been dogging the group for some time. The Chamber seems to have little patience for Chamber Watch nipping at its heels. Rather than simply countering the nonprofit's message, the Chamber worked with three cyberintelligence outfits through the Chamber's law firm, Hunton & Williams, on a multimillion dollar plan to discredit Chamber Watch.

The Chamber claims not to have known of the plan devised by Hunton & Williams and the cybersecurity firms, but e-mails from one of the security firms, discovered and leaked by anonymous members of a collective of hackers who were aiming at the firm for an unrelated controversy, do not support the Chamber's protestations of innocence.

Chamber Watch's entire budget is less than what the Chamber is alleged to have spent on the discrediting-the-critics strategy. (Chamber Watch was only created last year with $200,000 in seed money from the Change to Win coalition.) The discrediting strategy included the generation of fake personal profiles, fake documents, and other carefully crafted misinformation, and even placing some of this misinformation on restricted websites such as in the Facebook accounts of critics.

The strategy proposed is clearly illegal. If the Chamber is the high-minded public representative of the corporate sector, the fact that corporate interests would resort to this kind of strategy is a serious threat to a much less well-funded nonprofit sector that is probably disinclined to spend millions hiring commercial firms to do dirty tricks.

Chamber Watch this year plans to launch a site called CorporateDisclosure.org to focus on corporate money in politics, Public Campaign is going to put more effort into tracking corporate money in politics, and even Common Cause has recently adopted a strong stance on the issue, with efforts aiming at the political manipulations of the Koch brothers.

Should nonprofit advocacy organizations be prepared to budget for defensive measures against corporate-funded (or Chamber-funded) dirty tricks campaigns? Is public disclosure so threatening to the corporate world? Some nonprofit sector leaders have long called for significantly enhanced disclosure of corporate spending for (c)(3)s, (c)(4)s, and (c)(6)s, only to be thwarted by some national nonprofit organizations that believed that corporate disclosure would scare away good corporate funders.

Whether Citizens United continues to stand or ultimately falls to Congressional legislation, the answer to the Chamber controversy should be that enhanced disclosure of corporate financing is a good thing.—Rick Cohen