Will the FEC Let Super PACs Keep Donors in the Shadows?

September 11, 2018
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money in politics

Is the Federal Election Commission (FEC) so dysfunctional that super PACs think they can ignore basic reporting obligations and get away with it?

CLC filed three complaints last week asking the FEC to investigate three different super PACs, active in in Texas, Montana, and Ohio, for ignoring legal obligations that they file reports disclosing their fundraising and spending.

Although political operatives from both parties have found a number of creative ways to push the legal envelope – like super PACs gaming reporting schedules to evade disclosure or working closely with candidates – this cycle has shown a surprising pattern of super PACs entirely failing to timely file legally-required reports.

As a result, voters in Texas, Montana and Ohio went to the polls without knowing anything about the super PACs spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to influence their vote.

One super PAC was “Keep El Paso Honest,” which spent tens of thousands on billboards, TV and radio ads, and mailers attacking a Democratic candidate in the primary for Texas’ 16th Congressional seat. Now, more than five months after the election, voters in Texas still don’t know who was funding this group: it failed to file a pre-primary report before the election, and has failed to file two quarterly reports after the election.

Another was “Principles First,” which spent tens of thousands on TV ads expressly advocating against the election of Montana U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale in the weeks before the primary election. It was required to file reports disclosing these independent expenditures within 24 hours – but didn’t do so until a month after the Montana primary.

Ohio First PAC spent nearly a half-million supporting Ohio U.S. Senate candidate Jim Renacci’s candidacy, but failed to file independent expenditure or pre-primary reports until months after the primary election.

What’s more, Ohio First PAC still hasn’t reported its donors: it claims that it has raised a relatively nominal amount, but funded its slick ads and expensive surveys on credit. This is reminiscent of a similar ploy used last year in Alabama’s special election for U.S. Senate by the Democratic super PAC Highway 31, which spent $4.1 million but claimed it hadn’t raised a single penny. It wasn’t until a month after election day that Alabama voters learned that Highway 31’s top funders were two national Democratic super PACs, Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action. (This also spurred a complaint by CLC, which still hasn’t been resolved by the FEC.)

The Highway 31 example could hint at the motivation behind these latest schemes: super PACs might want to create the appearance that the money being spent in the races is locally-raised, when in fact most of it is out-of-state cash.

CLC predicted at the time that Highway 31’s secrecy scheme would be replicated by political operatives across the political spectrum if the FEC didn’t take action to enforce the law.  

Sure enough, thanks to the FEC abdicating its responsibility to review our complaint in a timely manner and enforce these laws, we are seeing super PACs abandon any pretense of taking campaign finance law seriously.

The question is: will the FEC let this trend continue?