Washington — Hartford-based Aetna insurance has come under scrutiny by an ethics watchdog in Washington for giving more than $7 million to groups that plan to blitz the airwaves this year with attack ads targeting Democrats.

In a filing with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Aetna unwittingly disclosed it gave more than $3.3 million to the American Action Network, or AAN, a conservative group run by Republicans.

AAN was founded by former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and GOP fundraiser Fred Malek, and includes other retired lawmakers, including former Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and former Rep.  Jim Nussle of Iowa. It calls itself an “action tank” whose purpose is to create, encourage and promote center-right policies based on the principles of freedom, limited government, American exceptionalism, and strong national security “

The AAN opposes the Affordable Care Act and ran television and web ads in 2010 attacking Reps. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and Chris Murphy, D-5th District.

The ads said the Connecticut lawmakers damaged the American health care system with their votes for the act. The ads also, misleadingly, said the health care reform act would provide Viagra to convicts.

Aetna, however, very publicly supported the health care reform bill when it was being debated in Congress, and is proud it was the first insurer to do so, said Aetna spokeswoman Susan Millerick.

The company declined to respond to questions about its support of a group that has made repeal of the health care act one of its top goals.

Besides attacking Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act, the AAN filed several briefs in the Supreme Court case in support of its repeal, especially if the court rules that the act’s mandate to buy insurance is unconstitutional. Health insurers like Aetna say they can’t afford the ACA’s reforms if they don’t garner new policy holders through the mandate.

The Supreme Court will issue its ruling on the Affordable Care Act by the end of June.

Aetna’s filings with the national insurance group also showed that it gave nearly $4.3 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has pledged to break its previous spending record of $50 million on political ads this year. The targets of the ad blitz: Vulnerable Democrats.

The national chamber’s position on the health care act is that it needs a massive overhaul, according to the chamber’s position papers and its president, Tom Donohue.

In a letter to Aetna President Mark Bertonini, the ethics group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, said Aetna is actively engaging in partisan politics and has kept that activity hidden despite the company’s stated policy of transparency and accountability.

CREW defines itself as a watchdog group that uses legal actions against government officials it deems ethically challenged and to fight for greater disclosures for possible conflicts of interest and money in politics.

Because AAN and the chamber are nonprofit organizations, they can legally accept unlimited contributions from corporations and use that money to run independent political ads that don’t explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate, but instead urge viewers to call candidates and tell them they oppose their actions.

Money collected for political activity is reported to the IRS. The names of donors are usually not disclosed.

In fact, both AAN and the Chamber of Commerce have strongly resisted efforts to require them to disclose their donors.

In its letter to Bertonini, CREW asked Aetna to stop giving to AAN. CREW has accused AAN of violating its nonprofit status and federal election laws by spending more than is permitted on political activity.

CREW also asked Bertonini to disclose to the public all of its political donations, in the June 14 letter.

Revelations that Aetna was donating millions of dollars to politically active groups came to light because the payments were listed on its filing with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners as “in support of lobbying.”

CREW says Aetna amended its filing to delete the payments after the company was questioned about them.

Bertonini responded to CREW’s letter with one of his own.

He said Aetna “participates in the political process at all levels of government,” and supports candidates and organizations “who share our views on how to fix the problems facing our health care system, as well as our country.”

Bertonini said in his letter that the company reported the contributions as lobbying expenses “in error” and they are in fact for “educational activities.”

He also said Aetna discloses all of its political donations in an annual Political Contributions and Related Activity Report posted on the company website.

The most recent report on the Aetna website, however, is for 2010. It shows the company’s federal and state PACs disbursed about $674,000 that year.

Murphy and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., each received $1,000 that year, and the Connecticut Republican Party received $5,000, the Aetna’s political report shows.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said of Bertonini’s reference to the lobbying expenses, “The activities of these groups are educational only if you consider attack ads educational.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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