Back in April, an excellent column by Walter Shapiro here at CJR urged reporters on the money-in-politics beat to display some “skepticism about the self-interested role of political insiders and campaign consultants in ballyhooing the merits of unlimited campaign spending”—both to maintain some perspective about how much that spending does to decide elections and to uphold “the rights of small campaign contributors.”
Shapiro was calling attention to the profit-seeking, self-dealing, and other economic realities of the legitimate side of the “campaign-industrial complex.” But as some laurel-worthy recent reporting from Politico and National Journal has shown, there’s an even starker reason for journalists to expose self-interest and help protect donors: some of the outlets seeking campaign cash, even if they’re operating within the law, are effectively scams.
That’s how the blunt lede from Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, writing Oct. 17 in Politico, put it:
There’s a new super PAC popping up in this year’s campaign: SCAM PAC.
In the presidential race, and tied to the coattails of Republican firebrand Rep. Allen West, a cottage industry has sprung up in which groups with such seemingly innocuous names as “Patriots for Economic Freedom” use high-profile campaigns and big names like West to raise money for themselves and build their email lists.
The long, deeply reported article is full of figures and specific examples, like this:
In the presidential race, too, a handful of outside groups have popped up to raise millions of dollars and spend them with jaw-dropping inefficiency. Perhaps the best example is a group dubbed Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a rebooted version of the Tea Party Express, which spent heavily in Senate races in the 2010 cycle. In the 2012 election, Our Country Deserves Better has collected $7.8 million, so far, with more than three-quarters of that money coming in through small increments that the FEC does not itemize.
On its website, the group says it is “leading the fight” against liberal policies in Washington for Americans who want to “stand up to Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress.”
Despite its robust fundraising, Our Country Deserves Better PAC has reported just $488,907 in independent expenditures. A full 91.6 percent of its revenue went to “other federal operating expenditures” — fundraising expenses, travel and other overhead costs.
If that’s among the most egregious examples, it’s not the only one. Another organization, the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, raised $2,370,688 this cycle and spent just 34.6 percent on independent expenditures. A full 65.2 percent of its outlays went to overhead.
POLITICO has found at least eight groups using West’s name to raise money for their PACs. The pitch is almost always along the same lines.
“Liberal super PACs are unleashing millions of dollars to stop Allen West. Help Patriot Super PAC fight back,” read one typically panicked plea.
But the only FEC record of Patriot Super PAC supporting West is for a $5,000 radio spot it aired in the district which sent listeners to a website with the URL www.wesaluteallenwest.com. Clicking on that site sends readers directly to Patriot Super PAC’s contribution page and a large headline: “DONATE NOW TO SAVE ALLEN WEST!”
Andrew Hemingway, a young New Hampshire operative who ran Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign in the state, earlier this year created a group called “4RG.”
In an interview, Hemingway said that, as the name would suggest, he launched the outfit to elect a Republican governor in New Hampshire.
“We’re really focused on the race here with GOP gubernatorial candidate Ovide [Lamontagne],” he said.
When it was noted that his group had just that week sent an email out soliciting funds for West, Hemingway chuckled and said: “Uh, yeah, I mean, so, so yes,” before saying that he had only done so as part of an arrangement to give the funds to another conservative third-party group named Western Representation PAC.
“They have an Allen West defense fund and stuff like that,” explained Hemingway, mentioning his relationship with the group’s strategist, Dustin Stockton.
But Stockton said there was no such agreement.
“We don’t have a deal,” Stockton said, adding that 4RG’s willingness to send their proceeds his way “sounds very generous of Andrew.”
While Politico’s Martin and Burns took a wide-angle view of the shady super PACs trying to exploit West’s folk-hero status on the right in the service of unrelated causes or personal enrichment, nearly six weeks earlier National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher had focused on one of those groups—the Coalition of Americans for Political Equality, or CAPE PAC.
Goldmacher’s story emphasized how the group set up “look-alike campaign websites” that mimic the candidates’ actual pages, in the process fooling even some seasoned political operatives into making donations. (This tactic had been dropped by the time Politico published its investigation this week, though the group still uses official-sounding URLs to attract visitors.)
As for where this money goes, the fees Goldmacher reports CAPE PAC’s leadership as collecting are modest—but the sums going to a couple obscure vendors who don’t seem to have other campaign clients are not. Toward the end, meanwhile, the article offers this nice bit of factchecking about the PAC’s claimed work on behalf of particular Republican candidates:
CAPE PAC has a strong Web presence, with nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter and 50,000 on Facebook. In a press release touting its work for Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is running for Senate, CAPE PAC claimed to have promoted a #VoteFlake hashtag on Twitter, posted a YouTube ad, and placed a “polling-place locator” on its website. The YouTube video had only 170 views as of the end of August; no one other than CAPE PAC’s Twitter account appears to have used the #VoteFlake tag.
“We are troubled with its deceptive website and collection of donations,” Flake spokesman Andrew Wilder said.
To aid Allen West, CAPE PAC stated in a July press release that it “secured airtime” that month. But a veteran media buyer and West’s campaign could find no record of such an ad airing on TV.
And the last word, appropriately, goes to a small contributor:
For donors such as Jesse Knight of Salt Lake City, who contributed $250 to CAPE PAC, the biggest question is what is happening with his money.
“I thought I was donating it to Romney,” Knight said. “That’s what they portrayed.”
Knight accidentally clicked “donate” multiple times. CAPE PAC officials were accommodating in returning his duplicative donations, he said.
But it wasn’t until a reporter contacted him that he learned he hadn’t contributed to Romney at all. “I want 100 percent going to the guy I’m voting for,” Knight said.
Thanks to good reporting like this, that very reasonable expectation is more likely to be a reality.