Faced with the horrors of Obamacare, the impending threat of a $10 minimum wage, and the chance to take back the Senate from Democrats, conservative donors may be feeling especially generous this election season. And, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, they have an abundance of options of how to best funnel money to their preferred candidates. With eight months to go til Election Day, 942 super PACs have already popped up, raising more than $140 million thus far.
But as these political groups solicit millions of dollars from donors big and small, not all of them are using their donations for their purported purpose.
A ThinkProgress review of Federal Election Commission PAC data found that several large political action committees and super PACs are spending most of their donations on “overhead” expenditures, with miniscule percentages going to actual political candidates.
In 2009, Iraq War veteran and unsuccessful Congressional candidate Kieran Michael Lalor (R) registered a political action committee called Iraq Veterans for Congress. Its stated aim: to “Recruit, Fund and Elect to Congress conservative Republican Iraq Veterans.” But while the committee raised and spent more than $800,000 before the 2010 elections, just $48,000 (less than 6 percent) of its most went to donations to candidates, as most of its funds went to outside fundraisers and printing shops. Now called the Afghanistan & Iraq Veterans for Congress PAC, the committee continues to be a prime example of a breed of PACs that spend a huge amount on political consultants and little on actually political action.
Though its website has been defunct since late last year, Afghanistan & Iraq Veterans for Congress PAC reported $469,967.46 in 2013 expenses — just $9,000 of that (under 2 percent) on candidate contributions. While it is not unusual for political committees to make more of their campaign expenditures in even-numbered years, when most elections take place, the committee’s -$14,359.04 cash-on-hand total would hardly indicate the committee is saving up its funds. Asked last year by the Poughkeepsie Journal about his PAC’s high overhead and low political activity, Lalor — now a New York State Assemblyman — said only that, “It’s expensive to raise money, but it’s more expensive not to.”
None of the committees or companies responded to a ThinkProgress request for comment on their activities, but the information included comes from public filings.
Afghanistan & Iraq Veterans for Congress PAC paid $64,485.31 (more than 13 percent of total spending) last year to a company called Base Connect, a controversial Republican fundraising firm that claims to use “proven, highly-effective direct mail strategies to raise the critical dollars required to make a conservative primary or general election challenge viable and winnable,” but has been frequently criticized for its high fees and low return. Afghanistan & Iraq Veterans PAC’s treasurer told the paper that it “donates more [to candidates] than the vast majority that rely on direct-mail fundraising.”
And a ThinkProgress review of other current Base Connect clients found that for their clients, the PAC’s spending habits were indeed about par for the course. The Conservative StrikeForce, a PAC chaired by former Reagan administration Deputy Labor Secretary Dennis Whitfield, asks donors for funds on the claim that it “is dedicated to electing true conservatives to all levels of government.” But in 2013, it spent about $2.2 million while using just about $27,000 on an independent expenditure and $7,000 on donations to a pair of state-level candidates. Whitfield received $12,500 in consulting fees and Base Connect received more than $102,000 for direct mail — and the PAC ended the year with less than $64,000 left in the bank. The PAC did send $5,000 last month to Florida Congressional special election candidate David Jolly (R).
Similarly, Freedom’s Defense Fund, which boasts that because it has “no office, overhead or staff,” it is uniquely positioned to “rebuild an American conservative majority” and back “conservative, pro-freedom candidates.” The group’s $1,641,005 in 2013 spending included $50,000 in independent expenditures (which tried to tie then-New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker (D) to Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner and slammed him for “liberal pandering” ), less than $75,000 to political candidates, and more than $1.2 million in fundraising. $146,278 of that went to Base Connect, and the group ended the year with just $65,184.23 in the bank.
Another firm, InfoCision Management Corporation, has received even more money from conservative PACs for fundraising. The company, which calls itself “the nation’s second-largest privately held teleservices company,” agreed to pay $75,000 and change its practices after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) accused it of illegal charitable solicitation practices (the firm admitted no wrongdoing).
Despite InfoCision’s questionable track record, numerous conservative political committees gave the first six- and seven-figure payments last year for fundraising, often giving more of their funds to the firm than all other expenditures combined.
In 2012, ThinkProgress reported that three InfoCision clients were running similar television ads. One, by a group called the Conservative Majority Fund PAC, featured a one-minute long laundry list of anti-Barack Obama conspiracy theories. The ad asked viewers to call a toll-free number to sign a “demand to disqualify Obama” and suggested that with 10,000 signatures from every Congressional district, they could “boot this guy off the ballot.” The PAC paid InfoCision Managment Corporation, an Akron, Ohio-based firm specializing in telemarketing, hundreds of thousands of dollars for telephone fundraising and voter contact calls opposing President Obama.
In 2013, the Conservative Majority Fund spent just over $3 million, with $2.4 million of that going to InfoCision. Though its donation page claims it is a “grassroots PAC dedicated to fighting liberalism, promoting the truth, and electing conservatives all across the country,” it spent only about $50,000 on independent efforts in support of unsuccessful Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II (R) over the year and had less than $130,000 left on hand at the end of December.
The American Legacy PAC, which raises money by highlighting honorary chairs former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his wife Callista, as well as anti-Obamacare activist Ben Carson, says it aims to “identify and support only true conservative capitalist candidates for office.” Yet of the roughly $2 million it spent in 2013, an astounding $1.8 million (almost 90 percent) went to InfoCision for fundraising costs. Less than $50,000 went to political candidates and just $51,443.27 remained in the bank at the end of the year. A spokesman for the PAC told Mother Jones that it was building up its fundraising list for 2014.
Finally, Patriot Voices PAC, founded by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and his wife Karen, still claims on its website that donations will be used to “defeat Barack Obama and elect conservatives in the House and Senate,” 16 months after the President won a second term, just over $10,000 of the more than $1 million it spent in 2013 and the first month of 2014 went to candidates (in “in-kind” contributions). The PAC paid almost $590,000 to InfoCision (more than 58 percent of its total expenses over that time) and gave thousands of dollars to the former Santorum campaign staffers now working for his political committee. At the end of January, Patriot Voices reported having only about $15,000 in the bank.
While these and numerous other InfoCision- and Base Camp-tied PACs are raising money without being clear about where the donors’ contributions really go, these practices are likely legal in the current anything-goes campaign finance climate.
Campaign finance expert Paul S. Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center frequently warns — when donating to PACs and super PACs, it is really “donor beware.”
In the Wild West West campaign finance culture that the Supreme Court and broken Federal Election Commission have created, donors may find that their political donations are doing little other than enriching political consultants and vendors.