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Campaign Spending Shows Political Ties, Self-Dealing
Posted on Mar 29, 2012
By Kim Barker and Al Shaw, ProPublica
This piece originally appeared at ProPublica.
For an example of the fluidity of campaign finance rules, as well as the tangled web of connections between candidates and super PACs, look no further than the digital consulting firm Targeted Victory.
So far, the firm’s hauled in $4.1 million working for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and American Crossroads, the super PAC launched by GOP strategist Karl Rove. Just down the hall, its neighbors in Arlington, Va., include an office housing four other companies working for Romney, American Crossroads or the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.
With the rise of super PACs, the jet-fueled political action committees that can take unlimited contributions, many campaign finance watchdogs have focused on the hundreds of millions of dollars being raised this presidential election cycle. But after the most recent campaign filings came in last week, ProPublica decided to track the other side of the equation: Where the money goes.
Our analysis found that more than $306 million has been spent so far by major super PACs and the five leading presidential candidates. In some cases, payees serve both candidates and the super PACs aligned with them, raising the specter that groups may be working together in ways that violate the rules, campaign finance experts said. We also found instances in which overseers of some political action committees directed hefty fees to their own companies, a legal form of self-dealing.
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At the same time, familiar names cropped up regularly among the top earners. Democratic strategists David Axelrod, Ronald Rosenblith and Barack Obama’s team from 2008 are back in place. On the Republican side, there were companies connected to Karl Rove, Carl Forti, David Carney and Michael Dubke.
Targeted Victory’s initial manager was Tony Feather, a close friend of Rove’s who served as the political director of the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000. Feather also co-founded longtime GOP consulting firm DCI Direct and its sister firm, FLS Connect. Targeted Victory co-founder Michael Beach oversaw the national voter turnout program for the Republican National Committee in the 2008 election cycle.
Like some other outside spending groups, super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited funds, but they are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns.
Yet the rules governing “coordination” have been narrowly interpreted and rarely enforced by regulators. As long as candidates and super PACs don’t discuss the granular ins and outs of their spending, such as the placement and length of election ads, they can discuss strategy. Candidates can even help raise money for super PACs, or even, say, ask their father or good friend to donate.
Campaign-finance experts say there’s plenty of room for activity that average people would consider “coordination” that legally doesn’t count. They also said when consultants work for both a super PAC and a candidate, regulators should question whether they are operating independently.
“Any time it’s the same individual who is providing advice and services to a campaign and a super PAC, there is the danger of coordination,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine who runs the Election Law blog. “I’m sure most of the individuals playing these roles are getting legal advice on what they can and cannot do. The human brain being what it is, though, I think it is very difficult to separate those roles.”
Expenditure records show that a company called TargetPoint Consulting provides “survey research” to Mitt Romney’s campaign while also doing “direct mail consulting” for Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC. In February, the founder told The New York Times that while he understood it could look “ridiculous,” his company had gone to great lengths to prevent improprieties, setting up a firewall between employees working on the different campaigns.
Even when the ties between super PACs and candidates are less direct, spending records show how their spheres overlap. For example, partners of GOP polling company Public Opinion Strategies set up NMB Research, a polling company that works for Restore Our Future. One Public Opinion partner, Neil Newhouse, serves as the chief pollster for Mitt Romney’s campaign.
American Crossroads uses four of the same consultants as Restore Our Future and three of the same consultants as Romney’s campaign. (This is hardly a shock: Carl Forti, a former political director for Romney, is political director of American Crossroads and senior strategist for Restore Our Future.) TargetPoint Consulting works for all three groups, although it’s only done $1,700 worth of work for American Crossroads.
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