Pennsylvanians for Accountability. Sounds nice. With a name like that, they must be about something good.

After all, are there any Pennsylvanians out there who are against accountability? Anybody want to speak up for irresponsibility? Anybody?

The group is running a television ad blasting Gov. Corbett, a Republican, for education cuts in his first two budgets, including teacher layoffs, while giving tax breaks to his "corporate donors." He is playing a "shell game" with the state, the piece says, using graphics of three jumping and sliding miniature Capitol domes and a piano score straight from a Gilded Age brothel.

Good luck finding out who's behind it, though - "dark money" attacks have come to state politics.

"We need to ensure we have transparency in elections so voters make informed decisions," said State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), chairman of the House State Government Committee. He has called a hearing for June 5 to probe the group and the state of campaign-disclosure laws in Pennsylvania.

The group, which is spending $250,000 to air the ad in Pittsburgh, Scranton, and other TV markets, is a "social welfare" nonprofit and says it plans to apply for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status under the federal tax code. Political operators have fallen in love with this sheltering IRS embrace, because social-welfare nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors - unlike regular political action committees. They have to report their expenses, but only in an annual tax return, long after elections are over.

The groups enjoy these benefits as long as they don't directly urge election or defeat of a particular candidate. Pennsylvania law requires such nonprofits to report their expenditures - but only if they use the magic words, such as vote for or elect or defeat.

That is the same as the federal standard, established by more than 50 years of Supreme Court decisions and other case law.

Metcalfe said he suspects that the Pennsylvanians for Accountability may have crossed the line, since Corbett is running for reelection in 2014 and the ad's intent is clear. The group says it is within its rights, and that the lawmaker is making a partisan attack.

"Pennsylvanians for Accountability is a group of concerned taxpayers tired of Gov. Corbett giving handouts to rich corporations while our education, transportation, and health-care systems are gutted in the state budget," said Lynsey Kryzwick, the group's spokeswoman and a political consultant at the BerlinRosen firm in New York. "We are committed to informing the public."

The independent news site Public Source of Pittsburgh, which first reported on the group, found that people listed in its state incorporation papers were union activists and that the group shares an address with the state office of America Votes, a union-affiliated group.

Metcalfe said Republican "dark money" groups operating in Pennsylvania should have to disclose, too. "Every citizen and group of citizens has the right to organize and express themselves, but they should abide by the law," he said. "We all need to play by the same rules."

On this issue, Metcalfe, an outspoken conservative, finds common cause with . . . Common Cause. "Pennsylvania voters have a right to know who is behind these groups, which in all aspects are acting as political committees," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. "Who's providing your funding? Who are your leaders? What is your agenda?"

Kauffman said state lawmakers could tighten up disclosure rules on such groups.

Nationally, social-welfare nonprofits managed to spend $254 million in the 2012 federal elections. Among the biggest spenders were Crossroads GPS, affiliated with Republican strategist Karl Rove, and the Democrats' Priorities USA, founded by former aides to President Obama.

Judging by the polls, which have shown Corbett with job approval ratings in the 30 percent range, his opponents are in a position to win the debate over his record without having to resort to such stealth attacks. For the attacker may become the story.

Corbett and his Republican allies have seized on the group's attacks as an issue, arguing he is being maligned unfairly by a group they suspect is backed by big labor, at odds with the governor on state worker pensions, liquor privatization, and other issues.

And for what it's worth, the Corbett administration says the education cuts that the ad mentions were imposed because federal stimulus payments for teachers had expired, and the business-tax cuts are part of a gradual reduction in the state's corporate rate - an issue that has enjoyed bipartisan support.

These issues and others no doubt will be litigated during the coming campaign - out in the open.

Well, mostly.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

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