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 across the country. It has not hesitated to take credit for its attacks, issuing press 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 the 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.
Why is the Times so concerned about anonymous donors this election cycle? The portion in bold below may provide a clue.
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.
The surge of anonymous money is the latest development in corporate America's efforts to influence the agenda in Washington, following rules enacted several years ago banning large, unregulated gifts to political parties. Democrats first established so-called third-party groups that could legally accept unlimited money from business and unions, though most had to disclose donors. Now, as new laws and a major Supreme Court decision have removed barriers to corporate giving, Republican operatives have embraced the use of nonprofit issue groups that can keep donors' identities secret.
The Obama White House has lately railed in partisan terms against anonymous donors and raised unsubstantiated allegations (which originated from the left-wing Center for American Progress) that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was funding ad campaigns with foreign donations, which would be a violation of campaign finance laws.
But Obama's concern over anonymous donors leaves him open to the charge of hypocrisy, given his presidential campaign was plagued by them. An October 10, 2008 Times story  marked one of the infrequent cases the paper placed the spotlight on the Obama campaign's failure to vet its donations. But the Times has yet to raise the issue in this election cycle.
The paper had opened up an alternate anti-conservative front on Saturday's front page, reporter Jackie Calmes in Richmond probing a new nonprofit group founded by Ginny Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: "Activism by Thomas's Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues ." The Times described the group as "dedicated to opposing what she characterizes as the leftist 'tyranny' of President Obama and Democrats in Congress and to 'protecting the core founding principles' of the nation."
It is the most partisan role ever for a spouse of a justice on the nation's highest court, and Mrs. Thomas is just getting started. "Liberty Central will be bigger than the Tea Party movement," she told Fox News in April, at a Tea Party rally in Atlanta.
But to some people who study judicial ethics, Mrs. Thomas's activism is raising knotty questions, in particular about her acceptance of large, unidentified contributions for Liberty Central. She began the group in late 2009 with two gifts of $500,000 and $50,000, and because it is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, named for the applicable section of the federal tax code, she does not have to publicly disclose any contributors. Such tax-exempt groups are supposed to make sure that less than half of their activities are political.
The front-page scandal treatment is a bit much, given that Liberty Central is not even active in the campaign yet, as the Times admitted deep into the story, where Thomas's side was eventually given: "Mrs. Thomas has suggested she is being singled out unfairly; other spouses of judges are politically active, she has argued, usually mentioning Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who is married to a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit."
The Times followed up with an editorial  on Tuesday lamenting the anonymity of Liberty Central's donors:
Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court, is the founder and chief executive of Liberty Central, a nonprofit organization set up to "restore the greatness of America," in part by opposing the leftist "tyranny" of President Obama and Democrats in Congress. Its first contributions of $500,000 and $50,000 came from undisclosed donors. The size of those gifts, their anonymity and their importance to the organization raise a serious issue of ethics for Justice Thomas.
This sudden concern for disclosure among the left and its media allies smacks of a double standard. As frequent Times target Karl Rove pointed out on Good Morning America Tuesday morning, the Clinton-crony packed Center for American Progress, associated with the blog ThinkProgress that made the attack on the Chamber, doesn't reveal its donors either.
Clay Waters is director of Times Watch . You can follow him on Twitter .