Congress may outlaw public television stations from renting, selling or swapping donor lists with political groups, lawmakers at a House commerce subcommittee on telecommunications said last week.
The hearing, which was called by subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA), included testimony from Robert T. Coonrod, president/CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; Ervin S. Duggan, president/CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service; and Kevin Klose, president/CEO of National Public Radio.
While the concept of exchanging or renting membership lists as part of direct mail campaigns is common throughout the nonprofit world, public television stations — which receive government funding — need to avoid swapping lists with one political party and not the other since it could reveal a real or perceived conflict of interest.
“Billy made it clear that he needs to introduce legislation this fall that will expressly prohibit this type of activity, either through direct contact or through third-party brokers,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Tauzin. “This kind of activity implies a cozy relationship between the recipient of federal funds and partisan political organizations. We are going to put an end to it.”
Earlier this month, news reports revealed that Boston public television station WGBH-TV had traded mailing-list names with the Democratic National Committee. DNC said WGBH had been swapping lists with the Democratic Party since 1993, despite Internal Revenue Service regulations that prohibit trading names with just one political. More than 32,000 names were said to have changed hands. The station said it is having an outside auditor conduct a full review of its policies regarding donor lists.
Public television stations WNET, New York, and WETA, Washington, also have acknowledged sharing donor lists with political groups.
Coonrod, whose organization distributes federal money to organizations such as NPR and PBS, testified last week that in addition to the DNC dealings, public television stations have rented from or exchanged lists with at least seven Republican entities in recent years, including the 1996 Dole campaign, the Conservative Republican Super File, Country Club Republicans and Great American Donors. He has informed all public radio and TV station managers that “we do not condone the practice of buying, selling or trading of lists with partisan political campaigns or committees and we are ready to work with Congress to ensure that it is not repeated.”
A survey of public broadcast stations is being conducted to measure the scope of this practice. While data is still being gathered, it has been found that of the 75 largest public TV stations:
* At least 53 use list brokers to exchange donor lists with other nonprofits.
* 28 have rented lists from political organizations.
* Fewer than 30 appear to have exchanged lists with political groups.
Coonrod said that of the four major list brokers doing business with public broadcast stations, three also do business with political organizations — and all three do business on both sides of the aisle. However, two of the four have policies that expressly prohibit the transfer, rental to or exchange with political parties or candidates.
“Fundraising effectiveness, rather than partisan political purpose, appears to be the primary motivation for stations renting or exchanging lists,” he said.
CPB's Inspector General is conducting an independent review and asking stations it funds to ensure that public broadcasters buying, selling or trading lists with partisan political campaigns and committees don't take place.