A powerful group of left-wing activists has leveraged big money, high-level White House access and tax-code loopholes to create a lobbying organization dressed up as an educational nonprofit with the benign name of a household laundry detergent.
The Tides Foundation is a favorite charity of such big-name liberal donors as Teresa Heinz Kerry (ketchup up heiress and wife of Secretary of State John Kerry) and Barbra Streisand. The two have given Tides more than $8.5 million over the years.
And Tides has a lesser-known benefactor: You. From the foundation's 2009 to 2011 IRS 990 tax returns, the most recent years for which data is available, the government has given Tides some $28 million in grants paid for by American taxpayers.
With offices in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan, the organization is headquartered in a nondescript peach-colored building on a hilltop in San Francisco's tony Presidio district.
Lucas Film is a next-door neighbor and the Golden Gate Bridge is a short jaunt away. Every year, from Tides HQ, the organization pushes $300 million through a network of hundreds of left-wing groups.
Tides says it's working to "promote and support emerging social change and educational programs." In fact, its programs are a checklist of liberalism's most ambitious agenda: the Open Society Institute of George Soros, AFL-CIO, the Iraq Peace Fund, the Arab American Action Network, American Civil Liberties Union, the pro-Castro groups United for Peace and Justice and Center for Constitutional Rights, along with groups opposing free trade and gun ownership while advocating green energy and government-funded abortion.
But perhaps most significantly it's become a meeting place of two potentially warring factions of the Left -- labor and environmentalists.
All that cash brings political clout.
"Tides has access that some of the best Democratic lobbyists would envy," said Ron Arnold, an opinion columnist for The Washington Examiner and the founder of Undue Influence, a research organization that tracks philanthropic and environmental funding.
"Tides has been one of the most secretive Big Green groups since it was founded by Drummond Pike in 1976 and now has risen to such access and power. While claiming to be poor little Birkenstock-wearing greenie groups, in actuality they are exercising undue influence under false pretenses to change public policy," Arnold said.
Operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization gives Tides many advantages. Its donors can remain anonymous while receiving a tax write-off; there is less oversight by the IRS; and Federal Election Commission reports are not required.
Many nonprofits, including the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, parent organization of Watchdog.org, do not list their donors on 990 tax returns. In keeping with its IRS nonprofit designation, Franklin's mission is education-based.
By contrast, Tides uses its massive budget to meet to with politicians and staffers at the highest level in the nation with one goal in mind: to shape legislation with a left-leaning agenda.
Perhaps Tides' biggest coup was using its Apollo Alliance Project to help draft President Obama's massive stimulus bill in 2009. The final stimulus bill doled out billions of dollars to further the Left's green-energy agenda and social justice constituency while preserving labor's role in centralized economic planning.
The Tides' Apollo Weekly Update of Feb. 20, 2009, quotes Phil Angelides, former California treasurer and Apollo Alliance chairman: "The recovery bill represents the focused work of labor, business, environmental and social justice organizations who developed a clear strategy about where the nation needed to go, and worked together to achieve it."
Tides' work on the stimulus bill preceded Obama's triumph in the 2008 election. Speaking in 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "The Apollo Alliance has been an important factor in helping us develop and execute a strategy that makes great progress on these goals and in motivating the public to support them."
Tides has used its IRS nonprofit designation to collect cash from wealthy liberals looking to make a difference while protecting their anonymity. Its cash has made it a White House player.
Indeed, a Watchdog investigation of the 30 top Tides officials found they visited the White House a total of 92 times during the past four years, including 20 visits with the president, first lady or vice president, and 72 times with high-ranking staff members.
Neither the White House nor Tides would disclose details of the visits.
"Like many prominent thought leaders we are proud that members of our staff and board have been invited to briefings at the White House on economic and educational issues," Tides' Chief Brand Officer Kate Byrne told Watchdog. "These meetings have been public in nature and attended by hundreds of other thought and sector leaders."
In fact, Byrne is downplaying Tides' remarkable access. While many visits were indeed cattle calls, several were more exclusive:
• A private tour of the West Wing for Tides board member Anne Mosle, her husband and two children conducted by National Security Council Executive Secretary Nate Tibbits. Mosle is a vice president of the environmental group Aspen Institute.
• Two one-on-one meetings between Tides CEO Melissa Bradley and Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser on what the administration calls "public engagement," with an interest in women's issues.
• One one-on-one between Bradley and White House Deputy Director for Presidential Personnel Jonathan McBride.
• Three one-on-one meetings between Tides Vice President Hadar Susskind and Jon Carson, then-director of the Office of Public Engagement. The OPE was created by Obama to ensure transparency with "diverse communities."
One of the president's top advisers is Tides project chairman Leo Gerard. When he's not also working as president of the United Steel Workers Union and vice president of the AFL-CIO, Gerard serves on Obama's National Commission on Energy Policy and on the president's Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations.
Gerard also helped create Workers Uniting, an ambitious effort to create a global labor union. As co-chairman of Tides' Apollo Alliance, he oversaw creation of the president's massive, pro-labor stimulus bill.
More recently, in a kind of labor-green pact, Gerard helped engineer the merger of his labor movement with the BlueGreen Alliance, a group that has seen the value to organized labor of jobs associated with creation of a green-energy economy managed by Washington, D.C., planners.
The Internal Revenue Service has carved out a special place for nonprofit organizations that educate the public. In exchange for receiving that tax-exempt status, such nonprofits agree not to engage in lobbying.
Specifically, the law reads, "no substantial part of the activities (shall be allowed) of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation...."
"A 501(c)3 is supposed to be involved in educational purposes and not the election of candidates or to create legislation," said Earl Glynn, a researcher for the Franklin Center's Watchdog Labs. "Tides is bending its 'education' platform as far as they can. While technically not violating the law, at what point does education and issue advocacy become a way of electing candidates?"
Glynn spent weeks looking at the voluminous tax records of Tides and its supporters along with White House records. He said there's ample evidence that Tides is involved not just in lobbying on the stimulus bill about which it bragged.
He pointed to Tides relationship with Catalist, a for-profit corporation that creates and maintains a voter database of millions of Americans. Catalist sells that list and other data services to progressive clients who push voters to the polls in partisan elections.
One of those clients is Tides, which, according to its 2011 tax return, paid $505,000 to Catalist for "subsidizing the cost of services to 501(c)(3) charities."
Translation: Tides paid Catalist to provide its voter lists to other nonprofits eager to influence the vote.
Catalist's customers include the ACLU, AFL-CIO, Teamsters, NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, the Latino activist organization National Council of LaRaza, the National Education Association, New Organizing Institute, and Planned Parenthood.
Slate magazine called the Analyst Institute, another Catalist client, "a secret society of Democratic researchers" who worked on the Obama campaigns. When Slate called to interview Analyst officials about their political role, Analyst referred them to the Obama campaign.
"Catalist is all about mobilizing people to vote, and Tides is bringing to the table all their nonprofit friends," Glynn said.
And Tides is growing. In addition to its main nonprofit entity, Tides has expanded to include a Canadian counterpart to nurture new nonprofits for a 9 percent cut, and a real estate holdings company. Its latest tax documents show combined net assets of $215,755,973.
"The Tides Foundation's primary exempt purpose is grant-making," its 2011 tax return said. "We empower individuals and institutions to move money efficiently and effectively towards positive social change."
That grant-making function helps explain Tides' critical role, not just on the Left but in the White House. It has become a kind of banking operation of the Left.
Indeed, when asked why some of its donors require anonymity, Tides spokesperson Byrne said, "Transparency comes in many forms ... The only area where we choose not to disclose information is that of our anonymous donors. In this effort we stand with many longstanding institutions in our field such as RPA, Schwab, Fidelity, etc."
The analogy is telling: RPA is a marketing firm, of course. Schwab and Fidelity are investment and banking firms.
"The Tides conglomerate is an octopus with hundreds of incubating projects funded by untraceable wealthy foundations," said Arnold, of Undue Influence. "Now it has promoted itself to a member of the federal government, particularly the White House."
Tori Richards is a reporter for Watchdog.org. Watchdog.org researcher Earl Glynn contributed to this story.