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Former White House aides enter field of undisclosed political spending

Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney launch two independent groups — the type of organizations once condemned by Democrats — to fend off similar conservative efforts as the 2012 presidential campaign gets going.

April 29, 2011|By Matea Gold, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Adopting tactics condemned by President Obama, two former White House aides launched a pair of independent groups Friday to defend him and fight the array of conservative efforts that poured money into last year's election.

The move by former White House Press Secretary Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, who served as a top aide to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, confirmed the sharp reversal by Democrats on the use of undisclosed political spending.

Burton and Sweeney said they were moved to create their own outside groups to fend off conservatives such as the Koch brothers and American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, independent groups co-founded by Karl Rove. Veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala will serve as a senior advisor to the Democratic efforts. Initial donors include the Service Employees International Union and DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.

One of the new organizations, Priorities USA, has been formed as a 501(c)(4) organization — a nonprofit social welfare group that can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing the identity of its donors. It putatively is designed to focus on issues — in this case, "to preserve, protect and promote the middle class" — but can spend up to half of its money on political activities. The use of such anonymous money in elections was vehemently criticized by Obama last year, as well as by Burton, his spokesman at the time.

In a statement Friday, Burton said the decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union political spending, created a new playing field on which Democrats have to engage.

"While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars," Burton said.

A second group, Priorities USA Action, is a so-called super PAC that can raise unlimited amounts of money for independent expenditures, but must disclose its contributors to the Federal Election Commission.

A video on the group's website warns that "the extreme right wing" is "extremely dangerous," playing clips of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. "It's time to stand up and fight back," the spot declares.

Republicans were quick to pounce on the Democrats for embracing the very political tactics they pilloried last fall.

"Obama's brazen hypocrisy, in encouraging his own operatives to start groups exactly like the ones he demagogued last year, shows how cynical this president can be when it comes to perpetuating his own power," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the two Crossroads groups.

The move also was criticized by campaign finance reform advocates. One group, Democracy 21, said it would ask the IRS to investigate whether Priorities USA's activities violate its tax-exempt status. Former Sen. Russ Feingold also weighed in, saying: "Democrats who mirror the right-wing tactics of Karl Rove and David Koch do our nation no favors."

When asked Friday about the launch of the new Democratic groups, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that Burton and Sweeney had left the administration.

"We can't control their activity," Carney said. "The president's position on disclosure remains the same — he believes it's vitally important."

Priorities USA is one of several new Democratic groups springing up to take on Republican independent-expenditure efforts, several of which will not disclose their funding sources.

matea.gold@latimes.com

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