What do former Congressman Alan West, commentator Laura Ingraham, and Sheriff David Clarke have in common? All are well-known conservatives and a ton of money is being raised for their respective US Senate campaigns.
And here’s a coincidence: none of them are actually running for office.
There is a growing business in the political marketplace: political action committees are filling up in-boxes and mailboxes with fake solicitations. They offer great promises and dire warnings designed to scare up some money. Their appeals are often built around sexy-sounding but nonexistent campaigns, and they only exist on paper – begging letters, nice salaries, and big payments to shady vendors. Nothing for campaigns.
One such paper PAC, Conservative Freedom Fighters, is soliciting Laura Ingraham fans for contributions of $25, $50, and even $1,000 to support her “campaign” for US Senate. Ingraham called the PAC “totally fraudulent,” and asserted it “represents everything people hate about politics. I’m not running for Senate and no one should give this PAC a cent.”
Another paper PAC has just started to raise money for her “campaign.” To fight back, Laura Ingraham tweeted: “Tell everyone NOT to give a DIME to the ‘Principled PAC’ run by some guy named Reilly O’Neal, supposedly for my ‘Senate run.’” O’Neal, a “political consultant,” collected over a quarter million dollars from the (real) US Senate campaign of Alabama’s Roy Moore.
Ingraham is not the only target of paper PACs. When Congressman Alan West (R-FL) lost his re-election campaign in 2012, he filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). He maintained that some PACs had diverted funding from his campaign by using his name and image to raise dollars that did not show up in his campaign coffers. West narrowly lost that race – perhaps because his mirror image rivals cost him money and the margin of victory.
How do these hucksters get away with it? They simply raise money autonomously. PAC-campaign collusion and all contact with office seekers are strictly verboten by the FEC. Independent expenditures can be used to support or oppose a candidate. Or not.
When a paper PAC does make an independent expenditure, it often takes the form of relatively inexpensive Internet ads with messages like, “Elect (insert conservative icon name here) – patriots desperately need his vote in the Senate/House!” The rest of the ad is fundraising jargon designed to collect even more contributions from unsuspecting conservatives.
All PACs must disclose to the FEC overhead costs and monies used in electioneering. Paper PACs generate huge expenses, especially in fundraising costs, and their vendors are often tied directly to the PAC operatives. Their FEC reports also show little or even zero investments in campaigns.
Here’s how one PAC does business.
Sheriff David Clarke has called the “Draft Sheriff David Clarke for Senate” PAC, which uses his name to raise money for a non-existent campaign, “a scam.” He explained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, “they don’t need my permission to do it. Every time I turn around, I talk to people and say, ‘No, I’m not running for Senate, hang onto your money.’”
According to its FEC filings, as part of its mission to “elect” Sheriff Clark, the paper PAC bought a $10,000 benefactor’s table at the Media Research Center’s annual gala, and paid $12,000 to be a sponsor of the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. The PAC incurred over $10,000 for transportation and other expenses at the confab, including $1,000 for meals and lodging at the Trump International Hotel. The Clarke for Senate PAC also spent $5,000 on tickets and expenses for President Trump’s inauguration.
From January 2017 to July 2018, Jack W. Daly, who served as Chairman and Treasurer of the Clarke for Senate PAC, was paid over $585,000 for his fundraising services. That’s about 30 percent of the PAC’s total budget, but there were scores of other line items citing fundraising expenses that were included in their FEC reports as well.
Paper PACs ostensibly raise money in support of conservative candidates, but only a fraction of their haul is donated to campaigns. Some have familiar names:
- For the years 2014 through 2018, HUCK PAC (affiliated with former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee), grossed over $6.2 million. It spent about 18 percent of that on campaigns and independent expenditures. The rest went to fundraising expenses, salaries, and overhead.
- The Center for Public Integrity found that Sarah PAC (affiliated with Sarah Palin) spent 10 times as much on consultants in 2015 and 2016 than it did on donations to candidates. The numbers from 2014 aren’t very different: $2.8 million raised and $205,000 invested in campaigns; in 2012, Sarah PAC grossed $5 million with $298,500 going to candidates. Palin officially shut down her PAC at the end of 2016.
Paper PACs operate under patriotic monikers and come in all sizes. The Advancing Freedom Fund grossed $750,000 since over the last two years, spending zero dollars on candidates and $181 on independent expenditures. The Black Republican PAC raised over $1.5 million since 2012, while donating a total of $48,000 to candidates and allocating $90,000 to independent expenditures.
Black Republican PAC’s treasurer is Scott Mackenzie – he is listed as treasurer of at least 30 PACs, including Veterans Victory Fund, Conservative Majority Fund, Founded on Truth, and the Tea Party Majority Fund. According to political investigative site Open Secrets, six of Mackenzie-affiliated PACs spent millions on fundraising calls and mailings including more than $600,000 paid directly to Mackenzie-owned vendors.
Paper PAC vendors do very well. Consider InfoCision Inc. Their clients have included presidential candidate Ben Carson, groups connected to the Tea Party movement, and a pro-Donald Trump political action committee. A Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission records reveals that over the past five years political action committees have paid InfoCision at least $24.8 million. Former employees have alleged the company preys on elderly people, and an investigation by Bloomberg Markets magazine and the law firm of Parker Waichman found InfoCision kept most of the money it was raising on behalf of the March of Dimes Foundation, the American Diabetes Association, and other charities.
According to an investigative report from the Sunlight Foundation, Patriot PAC raised $650,000 since 2012 and paid more than $45,000 to ELA Data Services, Inc., a business owned by the PAC’s treasurer, Eldon Alexander. Another vendor, with the same address as the paper PAC, was awarded $204,000 for fundraising services. Their tally of donations to political campaigns over the past eight years? $8,500.
There is good news bubbling up in all this. Campaigns & Elections magazine quotes Republican strategist Tony Marsh’s assessment of paper PACs: “The FBI has clearly signaled they’re more concerned with fraudulent activity associated with campaigns and their consultants and have been working more aggressively with the FEC to find and investigate these kinds of things. The rise of scam PACs has created new energy for federal investigators.” Last May, the FBI raided the offices of Scott Mackenzie.
There are 4,000 PACs in the US, most of them small to medium in size, and they legitimately represent political campaigns, farmers, healthcare providers, chiropractors, issue advocates, etc. A large majority are professionally run and have above board business practices. But because there is a jungle of political action committees out there; conservatives, all donors really, should shop around and donate wisely. Caveat Emptor: let the buyer beware.