For a brief, giddy moment, Sean Noble—a little-known former aide to an Arizona congressman—became one of the most important people in American politics. Plucked from obscurity by libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, Noble was tasked with distributing a torrent of political money raised by the Koch network, a complex web of nonprofits nicknamed the Kochtopus, into conservative causes in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Noble handed out almost $137 million in 2012 alone — all of it so-called dark money from unnamed donors — from his perch atop the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a group run out of an Arizona post office box. Much of it was channeled to obvious destinations: Groups supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for example.
But with Noble as ringmaster, Koch money also poured into efforts that didn't surface until long after Election Day: To a political committee backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker against a recall attempt; to a group blaming President Obama for high gas prices; even to a legal challenge to Arizona's redistricting plan. "I must tell you that Sean Noble from your group has been immensely helpful in our efforts," a California multimillionaire wrote to Charles Koch in October 2012, asking Koch to give several million to support an anti-union initiative in the state. "Thanks for any consideration."
Noble appears to have lost his central position in the Koch empire, undone by poor election results and a California investigation that shined an unwelcome light on some of the Center's inner workings, insiders say. But his story shows how the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling has given rise to a new breed of power brokers who control a growing pool of money raised in secret and spent to influence politics in ways that voters can't always trace. Much of Noble's work in 2012 remained invisible to the public until the Center and dozens of other Koch-backed nonprofits released their tax returns late last year.
An examination of those tax returns, along with court records and filings with the Federal Election Commission, shows that the Center to Protect Patient Rights bent state election laws and federal tax rules governing how such groups are supposed to operate. Millions of dollars the Center told the Internal Revenue Service it gave to other groups only for "tax exempt education and social welfare purposes" were actually spent on election ads and other political activities. Experts on nonprofit law said it's the donor's responsibility to follow up on grants if they were not spent as required.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Koch network's money was Sean Noble himself, tax documents show. The Center paid three firms owned by Noble almost $24 million for consulting and other services in 2012—or more than $1 of every $6 it spent. Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group that has written extensively about the Koch network, said disclosures from nonprofits come far too late to help voters and regulators. "What we're ending up with is information which is almost entirely useless to the voters," she said. "Because it's come so far after the election, so far after the fact that voters can barely remember what these organizations were doing and on behalf of which candidates or parties." There's no indication that Noble or the Center are under scrutiny by authorities for violating tax or election laws.
The remainder of this story is here.
February 14, 2014