For years, current and former elected officials have created leadership PACs, political action committees they can use to raise money to help elect like-minded candidates. But with no law preventing politicians from using the funds raised by their leadership PAC for personal use, some operate these committees more as an expense account than a political action committee.
A ThinkProgress review of Federal Election Commission (FEC) PAC data found that four leadership PACs have spent a paltry amount of their funds so far this election cycle on actual political candidates, while vasts amounts went to pay staffers, cover overhead, and cover travel, meals, parking, and even highway tolls.
While the politicians are rarely involved with the day-to-day operations of these leadership PACs (or their own campaign committees), they frequently headline fundraising events for the committees and they are largely free to spend the raised money as they wish. Donors seeking to earn lawmakers’ gratitude or help boost the politician’s political standing often donate to both their campaign account and their leadership PAC.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, leadership PACs are “considered separate from a politician’s campaign committee, providing donors with a way around individual campaign contribution limits.” They “provide a way for candidates to fund their travel, office expenses, consultants, polling and other non-campaign expenses,” though ostensibly their purpose is to advance the political view points of their owner.
John McCain’s Country First PAC
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has long cast himself as a leading campaign finance reformer. But following his defeat in the 2008 presidential election, he launched Country First PAC, a leadership PAC that claims to work “to identify and elect new leaders to governorships, statehouses, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives,” who “will become fierce advocates for limited government, economic opportunity, personal responsibility and strong national security.” But while the PAC’s online solicitation page asks for contributions so “Country First PAC will be able to financially help like-minded candidates across the country as they run for elected office,” just about $57,000 of the more than $730,000 the PAC spent in 2013 went to political candidates. And with just about $125,000 on hand, it will be difficult for the PAC to significantly expand on that 7.8 percent figure in 2014.
In addition to three small donations to three charities related to public safety workers, much of the PAC’s spending went to pay salary and payroll taxes for three former McCain 2008 campaign employees. Thousands more went to pay for charter and commercial flights, catering at the Four Seasons, and other travel costs. While Country First reported spending tens of thousands on its website, its “supported candidates” page is riddled with errors, including identifying Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) as being from Maine, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as representing Florida, and special election House candidate David Jolly (R-FL) as a candidate in the non-existent 13th District of Kentucky.
Country First PAC and McCain’s office did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the group’s spending.
Connie Mack IV’s MACK PAC
Former Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL) lost his 2012 Senate race against Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Weeks later, his campaign committee renamed itself MACK PAC and converted into a PAC. While his ConnieMack.com website was updated in early 2013 to reflect the name change and highlight his post-Congress work, the site’s donation page still requests donations for his unsuccessful 2012 campaign.
While MACK PAC spent almost $195,000 in 2013, it made just two $1,000 contributions to political candidates. The PAC sent over $67,000 to Arent Fox LLP for compliance legal fees, thousands of travel, $787 for parking at the Southwest Florida International Airport, and $355 on tolls. It also reported spending $17,839.6 for “campaign car lease payments.” It ended the year with less than $500 in the bank. Mack briefly considered a run for his old U.S. House seat, after his successor resigned following a drug arrest, but instead announced he would “continue to advocate for our shared principles” as a private citizen.
MACK PAC and Mack did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the group’s spending.
Michele Bachmann’s Many Individual Conservatives Helping Elect Leaders Everywhere PAC
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) started her leadership PAC in 2010 (initially registered as the incorrectly-spelled MichellePAC), officially aimed at electing “constitutional conservative candidates throughout the country.” But while the PAC raised and spent more than $1.2 million in the 2012 campaign cycle, less than 10 percent of that went to help federal candidates. Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly launched an investigation into whether some of that money was also improperly spent to pay the national political director of her unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign (the investigation was apparently still ongoing in December, but no charges have yet been filed) .
In 2013, the PAC spent more than $311,000, but just $12,900 (or 4.1 percent) went to electing candidates, “constitutional conservatives” or otherwise. More than $90,000 went to legal fees; much of the rest went to other overhead costs. Ironically, while MICHELEPAC’s website does acknowledge in small print that as “Michele is frequently asked to travel around the country to speak, endorse and raise funds for conservative Republican campaigns,” the PAC did not report any travel expenses for Bachmann in 2013.
MICHELEPAC had less than $75,000 left in the bank at the start of 2014. Neither it, nor Bachmann’s office, immediately responded to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the group’s spending.
Ted Cruz’s Jobs Growth and Freedom Fund
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) registered his leadership PAC just weeks after his 2012 victory. The PAC’s stated “mission is to elect strong conservatives and to build a Republican Senate Majority in 2014,” and the website donation page asks donors to give “$25, $50, or $100 and help elect strong conservatives to the U.S. Senate.” Still, out of the more than $469,000 spent by the PAC in its first full year of operation, just $33,000 (about 7 percent) went to political candidates. Of that, less than half went to Senate candidates — much of the rest went to pay for travel to Iowa in support of Rep. Steve King (R) and the state Republican Party (Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential caucuses, is a popular destination for presidential hopefuls of both parties).
About $90,286.01 of the PAC’s 2013 spending went to J2S Strategies (Cruz chief political strategist Jason Johnson’s company). Thousands more went to pay for catering, travel, parking, and meals at restaurants ranging from Chick-fil-A to Morton’s steakhouse. Payments also included $110.88 for “travel” to anti-LGBT Iowa activist Bob Vander Plaats’ group, The FAMiLY LEADER.
The Jobs Growth and Freedom Fund began 2014 with just about $51,000 cash-on-hand. It and Cruz’s office did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the group’s spending.
“An Incumbent Racket”
The FEC codified the controversial practice in 2003, despite opposition from both campaign finance reform advocates and from then-Commission Vice Chairman Bradley Smith (R), the nation’s leading opponent of campaign finance restrictions. Smith has termed leadership PACs “really kind of an incumbent racket.”
Although the usually-divided FEC has repeatedly asked Congress to ban the use of leadership PACs for personal inurement (and a few Members of Congress have proposed doing just that), their request has annually been ignored by the very people who benefit from the status quo.