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Published — April 29, 2013 Updated — May 12, 2014 at 5:12 pm ET

Environmental nonprofit makes big ad buy thanking senators

Six-figure spots spoof AT&T advertising campaign

Introduction

Environmentalists are spoofing AT&T’s “It’s not complicated” advertising campaign in a new series of big-dollar messages thanking Democratic senators for their votes in March against budget amendments that they believed would have weakened the Clean Air Act.

“What’s better: More industrial carbon pollution that leads to more asthma attacks or less industrial carbon pollution that leads to less asthma attacks?” a man in a blue suit asks to four children sitting around a small table in a new ad unveiled today by the Environmental Defense Fund.

Predictably, the children say “less,” as they detail their own asthma ailments.

Telecommunications giant AT&T has repeatedly shown a businessman quizzing children about the benefits of being bigger and faster in recent ads.

The five new ads released by the Environmental Defense Fund specifically single out Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and Mark Warner, D-Va. as worthy of thanks.

Environmental Defense Fund spokeswoman Sharyn Stein told the Center for Public Integrity that the media buy would be “six figures.”

The Environmental Defense Fund is organized as a charitable nonprofit under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code. Campaign finance attorney Joe Birkenstock of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Caplin & Drysdale says that such nonprofits face “no restrictions for running pure issue advocacy.”

Charitable organizations are restricted from expressly advocating for or against federal candidates, but thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, “social welfare” nonprofit groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code may overtly support or criticize candidates.

Hagan, Shaheen and Warner will next face voters in November 2014. Kaine and McCaskill were both re-elected last fall.

According to its most recent annual report, the Environmental Defense Fund raised about $116 million during its 2012 fiscal year — with foundation grants accounting for about 26 percent of that sum.

Like other nonprofits, the Environmental Defense Fund is not legally required to disclose the names of its donors. But all nonprofits must report the grants they make to fellow nonprofits.

According to the Foundation Center, which monitors foundation giving, groups that supported the Environmental Defense Fund in 2012 include the Kresge Foundation ($540,000), the Bernard F. and Alva B. Gimbel Foundation ($120,000) and the F. M. Kirby Foundation ($100,000).

The Kresge Foundation earmarked its contribution for wetlands work in Louisiana, while the Kirby Foundation gave to support “science-based policy solutions to protect the Adirondacks from acid deposition” and the Gimbel Foundation contributed for “general support.”

Read more in Federal Politics

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