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Activists Press Corporations to Cut Ties With Presidential Debate Commission

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University of Denver students stand in for President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney during a dress rehearsal for tonight's presidential debate.

"This is a marathon, not a short-term sprint; I've been doing this long enough to know this is a hard nut to crack," said George Farah, executive director of a like-minded organization, Open Debates. "This time, maybe we are tapping into an additional reservoir of anger."

Open Debates was founded in 2003 with the support of prominent voices from across the political spectrum, such as social conservative Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, and Larry Noble, who served as general counsel at the Federal Election Commission and is now with the Washington law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson sued the commission and the Republican and Democratic parties last month, alleging antitrust violations and requesting debate access. Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein are on ballots in enough states to theoretically win the election. Stein and her supporters held a series of protests Wednesday in Denver, the site of this cycle's first presidential debate.

A contract signed by presidential candidates President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry in 2004 limited the number of debates, required audience questions to be preapproved, prohibited follow-up questions and dictated camera positioning.

"The commission allows the major-party candidates to manipulate the process behind closed doors without ever having to play a price politically," said Farah, an antitrust attorney at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in New York City, who funds the effort himself.

But Brown denied that the commission was "party" to any such contract.

"There's never been a contract between the commission and the candidates. Not ever, not now," she said.

The nonprofit raises millions of dollars every cycle to fund the presidential and vice presidential debates. But at least three of the listed corporate sponsors - Philips, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the bottled-water association - made no monetary contribution this cycle, according to company emails and Brown.

Collectively, the 10 sponsors contributed about $200,000 to support voter education activities this cycle, she said. The rest of the money came from the universities hosting the presidential and vice presidential debates: the University of Denver, Centre College in Danville, Ky., Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

The commission appears to do the bulk of its fundraising the year before a presidential election, according to recent IRS filings. In 2007, the commission received $5.8 million in contributions. The next year, it raised an additional $1 million and reported spending just more than $3 million on its core mission to "produce, finance, and publicize the general election debates."

Other debate sponsors include the Kovler Fund, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen and Crowell & Moring, a Washington law firm that lobbies on behalf of Novartis, SC Johnson, Pacific Rim Mining and the American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers.

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