Just weeks after launching the tech industry's newest political action group, FWD.us, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has run into controversy over a set of TV commercials that go beyond the group's call for bipartisan immigration reform by supporting individual politicians on decidedly partisan grounds.
The ads have sparked criticism from the right and left, including environmental activists who staged a small protest outside Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters last week. Tech industry veterans say that's why most Silicon Valley business leaders avoid hot-button issues that don't have a direct bearing on their business.
But even as some critics questioned whether the FWD.us effort has gone too far, political experts say the TV spots -- which don't mention Zuckerberg, FWD.us or its stated goal of immigration reform -- show the billionaire Facebook founder and his well-funded cadre of political advisers are willing to play hardball to achieve their goals.
"It's a very cynical approach," said Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., although she acknowledged, "others might call it pragmatic and strategic."
The ads are only the latest example of a growing practice by special interests, including the tech industry, of using tax-exempt front groups to spend freely on campaigns advancing their policy goals, Krumholz added.
"It is a smart strategy," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, but he warned "there's an inherent risk" of potentially alienating Facebook members or other consumers who don't support the positions touted in the commercials.
The ads in question are aimed at shoring up home-state voter support for two senators who are backing an immigration reform package that Zuckerberg and other tech leaders want to see passed.
One commercial lauds South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham for criticizing President Barack Obama's health care program and for supporting the controversial Keystone oil pipeline. The other praises Alaska Democrat Mark Begich for working to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
The ads are designed to give political "cover" to members of Congress from conservative states where voters might not like the immigration bill. "The goal here is to get those voters to say, 'I might not support Senator So-and-So on immigration, but I like him on these other things,' " Schnur said.
The messages outraged environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, who say Zuckerberg appears to be advocating controversial oil projects when his company positions itself as a supporter of renewable energy.
FWD.us says it has no position on those issues; defenders argue the ads simply cite positions the senators have already taken. But other critics raise broader objections:
The ads are "deceptive" and "hypocritical" because they mask their true intent and never mention FWD.us as the sponsor, charged Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group. And on the right, conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com blasted the ad campaign as amateurish and said it exaggerates Graham's conservative credentials.
"I worry that it's not fully thought-through," said a Washington consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with the tech industry. "It seems like they're getting a little far afield" from immigration.
FWD.us has acknowledged sponsoring the ads through two newly created subsidiaries: Americans for a Conservative Direction, which aims to reach conservative GOP voters, and the Council for American Job Growth, nominally geared toward Democrats.
In a statement, FWD.us said the group "is committed to showing support for elected officials who promote the policy changes needed to build the knowledge economy. Maintaining two separate entities ... to support elected officials across the political spectrum -- separately -- means that we can more effectively communicate with targeted audiences of their constituents."
Immigration reform is a widely endorsed priority among tech leaders, who argue that current laws are unfair to immigrants and an economic hindrance to the industry, preventing talented engineers and entrepreneurs from joining or forming Silicon Valley companies.
While Facebook and other tech giants have spent millions in corporate funds to lobby on the issue, a Facebook spokeswoman said FWD.us is "something that Mark is supporting personally -- it's not related to the company."
Zuckerberg, 28, hasn't publicly claimed any partisan affiliation, and it was a surprise to some when he hosted a Feb. 14 fundraiser for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, widely viewed as a future GOP presidential contender. That event also drew protesters who accused Christie of blocking funds for Planned Parenthood.
FWD.us, meanwhile, has enlisted veteran operatives from both major parties, led by GOP consultant Rob Jesmer. That's led Erickson and other bloggers to suggest the recent ads are the work of consultants "making a quick buck" from wealthy clients who don't know Washington.
Schnur discounted that notion. "It seems to sell Zuckerberg and his colleagues short," he said, "to suggest they're somehow less savvy than other business, labor or environmental group leaders who hire consultants to do similar things."
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.