December 2011 was a busy month for supporters of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. The former speaker of the House had surged ahead of his Republican rivals in several polls. Suddenly he was being barraged by negative TV ads produced by Restore Our Future, a Super PAC for rival candidate Mitt Romney.
Gingrich did not have the money to retaliate. Individual donations in federal elections are restricted to $2,500. He needed his own Super PAC that could receive unlimited contributions.
Ever since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case paved the way for Super PACS, they have been a legitimate new tactic for political campaigns. As far as can be determined, Winning Our Future (WOF), the pro-Gingrich political action committee, did not do anything impermissible under campaign finance laws. But a look at its regular reports to the Federal Election Commission reveals a degree of legerdemain that appears commonplace in FEC records and makes it difficult for the public to know who ends up with the record amounts of money flowing into the political system today.
"Opaque transactions in politics undermine public confidence in the process," said Meredith McGeehee, owner of McGehee Strategies, which works on public interest advocacy, and policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.
FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Because Super PACs are required to operate independently of the candidates they support, three longtime Gingrich allies scrambled to assemble one on his behalf. Winning Our Future filed papers with the Federal Election Commission on December 13, 2011. Texas billionaire Harold Simmons seeded it with $500,000 and gave twice more, for a total of $1.1 million. The family of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson donated $21.5 million. By the end of March 2012, WOF had raised an additional $1.2 million, for a war chest of $23.8 million.
Who received that money is difficult to discern. Within six weeks of the Super PAC's launch, three new companies were set up to serve as vendors for WOF. (A fourth had been formed earlier in 2011, after Gingrich declared his candidacy in May, by an individual behind one of the three later outfits.) These four new companies received 84 percent of WOF's total disbursements, according to FEC records.
Some political consultants said they set up separate companies for different races for accounting purposes or to create a kind of firewall between their political work and their commercial activities. Others said the maneuver can be used to conceal work being done simultaneously for rival camps. And it can have tactical advantages.
"A new entity means they can fly under the radar for a few minutes," said one source. "Theoretically, it slows down the opposition research on their buying style." Where a candidate chooses to advertise says a lot about the issues and voters he or she is targeting.
The key word is "buying." The biggest checks written by any campaign or Super PAC go to the companies that buy ads on TV, radio and the Internet. Under long-standing industry practice, the broadcaster gives the buyer a 15 percent discount that the buyer has kept as a commission. These days, the percentage kept by political media buyers is likely to be 5 percent or less, according to various industry insiders. The rest of the discount from the broadcasters may be apportioned any way the leaders of the PAC or campaign wish.