In a confidential 2010 filing, Crossroads GPS — the dark money group that spent more than $70 million from anonymous donors on the 2012 election — told the Internal Revenue Service that its efforts would focus on public education, research and shaping legislation and policy.
The group's application for recognition as a social welfare nonprofit acknowledged that it would spend money to influence elections, but said "any such activity will be limited in amount, and will not constitute the organization's primary purpose."
Political insiders and campaign-finance watchdogs have long questioned how Crossroads, the brainchild of GOP strategist Karl Rove, had characterized its intentions to the IRS.
Now, for the first time, ProPublica has obtained the group's application for recognition of tax-exempt status, filed in September 2010. The IRS has not yet recognized Crossroads GPS as exempt, causing some tax experts to speculate that the agency is giving the application extra scrutiny. If Crossroads GPS is ultimately not recognized, it could be forced to reveal the identities of its donors.
The tax code allows groups like Crossroads to spend money on political campaigns — and to keep their donors private — as long as their primary purpose is enhancing social welfare.
Crossroads' breakdown of planned activities said it would focus half its efforts on "public education," 30 percent on "activity to influence legislation and policymaking" and 20 percent on "research," including sponsoring "in-depth policy research on significant issues."
This seems at odds with much of what the group has done since filing the application, experts said. Within two months of filing its application, Crossroads spent about $15.5 million on ads telling people to vote against Democrats or for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.
"That statement of proposed activities does not seem to align with what they actually did, which was to raise and spend hundreds of millions to influence candidate elections," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, who reviewed the group's application at ProPublica's request.
Officials with Crossroads GPS would not answer specific questions about the material in the application or whether the IRS had sent a response to it.
"As far as we know, the Crossroads application is still pending, in which case it seems that either you obtained whatever document you have illegally, or that it has been approved," Jonathan Collegio, the group's spokesman, said in an email.
The IRS sent Crossroads' application to ProPublica in response to a public-records request. The document sent to ProPublica didn't include an official IRS recognition letter, which is typically attached to applications of nonprofits that have been recognized. The IRS is only required to give out applications of groups recognized as tax-exempt.
In an email Thursday, an IRS spokeswoman said the agency had no record of an approved application for Crossroads GPS, meaning that the group's application was still in limbo.
"It has come to our attention that you are in receipt of application materials of organizations that have not been recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt," wrote the spokeswoman, Michelle Eldridge. She cited a law saying that publishing unauthorized returns or return information was a felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to five years, or both. The IRS would not comment further on the Crossroads application.
"ProPublica believes that the information we are publishing is not barred by the statute cited by the IRS, and it is clear to us that there is a strong First Amendment interest in its publication," said Richard Tofel, ProPublica's general manager.
ProPublica has redacted parts of the application to omit Crossroads' financial information.
With its sister group, the super PAC American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS has helped remake how modern political campaigns are financed.
American Crossroads, which does identify its donors, spent almost $105 million on election ads in the 2012 cycle. For its part, Crossroads GPS poured more than $70 million into ads and phone calls urging voters to pick Republicans — outlays that were reported to the Federal Election Commission. It also announced spending an additional $50 million on ads critical of President Barack Obama that ran outside the FEC's reporting window.
Based on the extent of Crossroads GPS' campaign activities, Obama's re-election campaign asked the FEC in June to force it to register as a political action committee and disclose its donors. The FEC has yet to rule on the request.
Politically active social welfare nonprofits like Crossroads have proliferated since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in January 2010 opened the door to unlimited political spending by corporations and unions.
Earlier this year, a ProPublica report showed that many of these groups exploit gaps in regulation between the IRS and the FEC, using their social welfare status as a way to shield donors' identities while spending millions on political campaigns. The IRS' definition of political activity is broader than the FEC's, yet our investigation showed many social welfare groups underreported political spending on their tax returns.
During those 19 months, Crossroads spent a total of $64.7 million, of which $1.4 million — or just 2 percent — was identified as being spent on research. That compares with the 20 percent of effort Crossroads said it would devote to research in its application.
A tax return covering this year isn't due until November 2013.
The IRS rarely pursues criminal charges against nonprofits based on statements in their applications. It's more common for the agency to deny recognition or revoke a group's tax-exempt status.
In a letter to Congress in September, the IRS said it was engaged in "more than 70 ongoing examinations" of social welfare nonprofits. Earlier, in its work plan for the 2012 fiscal year, the agency said it was taking a hard look at social welfare nonprofits with "serious allegations of impermissible political intervention."
Campaign finance watchdog Fred Wertheimer, who runs Democracy 21 and has filed several complaints to the IRS about Crossroads, said the group's application for recognition showed why more aggressive enforcement is needed.
"When you read what they say on their application, there are a lot of words there. But I find them to be disingenuous and to have little to do with why Karl Rove founded this organization," Wertheimer said. "If you believe this is a social welfare organization, I have a rocket that can get you to the moon very quickly and at very little cost."