The White House plans to continue attacking groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative organizations for not disclosing the names of donors behind political ads. But during the 2004 Democratic primary campaign, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was involved with a political advocacy group that refused to reveal its own donors until the law required it.
During a press conference Tuesday, Gibbs scolded groups that would not disclose, and has said that Americans have a right to know who is behind “largely negative campaign attack ads.”
“Simply tell us who you are,” Gibbs said.
In a speech last week in Maryland, President Obama even called the practice “a threat to our democracy.”
“The American people deserve to know who’s trying to sway their elections,” Obama said.
Under campaign finance law, the Chamber is not required to release the names of its donors. When pressed by reporters as to why groups not mandated by law should disclose their donors, Gibbs said they should do it in “the spirit of political disclosure.”
During the 2003-2004 presidential primary season, however, Gibbs worked as the spokesman for a liberal advocacy group that ran attack ads against then-Democratic candidate Howard Dean. The “secretive” group, called Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values, spent months organizing scathing ads without disclosing who was paying for them.
One particularly damaging TV spot that aired in December 2003 showed a photograph of Osama Bin Laden while an ominous voice declared, “Americans want a president that can face the dangers ahead. But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy. It’s time for Democrats to think about that. And think about it now.” The ad, part of a series of anti-Dean spots, crippled the Dean campaign.
The Dean camp was furious, and called on the group to disclose who had funded the ad.
“Whoever is behind this should crawl out from underneath their rock and have the courage to say who they are,” Former Dean Spokesman Tricia Enright told The New York Times at the time. “It is hateful, it’s cynical, it’s exactly the kind of ad that keeps people from voting, that keeps people from getting involved in the process.”
The organization’s Treasurer, David Jones, refused.
“We will disclose donors when the law requires,” Jones was quoted as saying in The New York Times.
By law, organizations listed under the 527 tax code only have to reveal their donors once a quarter. Given the timing of the ad, Gibbs’ group knew they could withhold the names until after the January 2004 Iowa caucuses, which were about a month away from the time the Osama bin Laden spot hit the airways.
NEXT: Gibbs’ group only made public financial disclosures after Dean’s campaign was derailed
The plan worked. Dean came in third place in the Democratic Iowa caucuses, and after delivering his infamous “scream” speech in Des Moines, the campaign was widely regarded as dead in the water. Dean dropped out of the race a few weeks later, and the group was largely credited for the defeat.
Despite calls for the organization to disclose its funding base before the election, Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values kept its word and only made the information public once it was required by law in February 2004.
Gibbs did not immediately return a request for comment.
Jon Ward contributed to this report.