World and Nation

Conservative group gives donors secrecy, then attacks

The American Future Fund, a conservative organization based in Iowa, has been one of the more active players in this fall’s campaigns, spending millions of dollars on ads attacking Democrats. It has not hesitated to take credit for its attacks, issuing news releases with headlines like “AFF Launches TV Ads in 13 States Targeting Liberal Politicians.”

Like many of the other groups with anodyne names engaged in the battle to control Congress, it does not have to identify its donors, keeping them — and their possible motivations — shrouded from the public.

But interviews found that the group was started with seed money from at least one influential Iowa businessman: Bruce Rastetter, a co-founder and chief executive of one of the nation’s larger ethanol companies, Hawkeye Energy Holdings, and a rising force in state Republican politics. And hints of a possible agenda emerge from a look at the politicians on the American Future Fund’s hit list. Most have seats on a handful of legislative committees with a direct say in the ethanol industry.

Frequently speculated as a likely backer of the group, Rastetter has now acknowledged through his lawyer that he provided financial support at its inception roughly two years ago. The lawyer, Daniel L. Stockdale, said Rastetter had not given since, adding, “He does not feel that he should reveal the size of prior contributions.”

The American Future Fund, organized under a tax code provision that lets donors remain anonymous, is one of dozens of groups awash in money from hidden sources and spending it at an unprecedented rate, largely on behalf of Republicans. The breadth and impact of these privately financed groups have made them, and the mystery of their backers, a campaign issue in their own right.

Through interviews with top Republican contributors and strategists, as well as a review of public records, some contours of this financing effort — including how donors are lured with the promise of anonymity — are starting to come into view.

In part, political operatives have reconstituted the vanguard of reliable Republican contributors who helped elect President George W. Bush and support Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked the Vietnam record of his opponent in 2004, Sen. John Kerry. But as with the American Future Fund, the effort also appears to include business interests focused on specific races.

Bradley A. Blakeman, a longtime Republican operative and a senior aide in the Bush White House, said, “Donors are the usual suspects that have helped Bush, as well as some fresh faces.”

Stoking the flow of dollars has been the guarantee of secrecy afforded by certain nonprofit groups. Mel Sembler, a shopping mall magnate in St. Petersburg, Fla., who is close to Republican strategist Karl Rove, said wealthy donors had written six- and seven-figure checks to Crossroads GPS, a Rove-backed group that is the most active of the nonprofits started this year.