Super PACs Are Super Ruining Our Democracy
Contrary to most press accounts, there was a decisive winner in the Iowa caucuses last night, and it was neither Rick Santorum nor Mitt Romney. The "winner" was the so-called "Super" PACs (political action committees), the mutant front groups for political candidates that were "created" in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision that unleashed corporations and billionaires to spend unlimited money influencing elections. The losers were the American people and the integrity of the democratic process, which is so vulnerable to attack ads and other influence funded by the 1%.
"Citizens United" Case Wreaks Havoc
The Court's decision, known by the feel-good name "Citizens United," and a related case called "SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission (FEC)" decided last year, led several groups to register last summer with the FEC as Super PACs, meaning PACs with no limits on the amount of money people or corporations can contribute. It has also led to hundreds of thousands of Americans, including an increasing number of Members of Congress, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Ted Deutch, to call for the Constitution to be amended to overturn these and related court cases that are giving money extraordinary power in our democracy.
(Tax expert Greg Colvin has developed a chart to help citizens evaluate the amendments. Groups such as MovetoAmend, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, Free Speech for People, Common Cause, the Alliance for Democracy, the Center for Media and Democracy and others have joined in calling for amending the Constitution; activities are underway to protest the decision the week leading to the second anniversary of the decision on January 21, 2012, such as MovetoAmend's "Occupy the Courts," at courthouses across the country on Friday, January 20th.)
In Iowa, the "Restore Our Future" Super PAC led by people who formerly worked officially for Romney made what are described as "independent expenditures" that are not "coordinated" with the campaign that influenced the outcome of the primary. The ads were largely against the candidate who appeared to pose the biggest threat to Romney in the party nominating process. And that person was not Santorum, the ousted former senator from Pennsylvania.
The Fall and Rise and Fall of Gingrich (and the Rise of the Super PAC)
It was the disgraced former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, who became the target of the pro-Romney Super PAC. In the closing months of last year, he had shown more finesse in the debates than other candidates and than he had demonstrated in managing his campaign, which resulted in mass resignations of his staff earlier in the year.
In December, after frequent Tea Party speaker Herman Cain's candidacy imploded over allegations of sexual harassment and the activities of his campaign manager, Mark Block, and as Texas governor Rick Perry stumbled, the most trusted pollsters in Republican circles had Gingrich winning 38% of likely Republican voters, more than twice the percent who said they would support Romney. Santorum was barely a blip in the widely credited Rasmussen poll, even though his social "conservatism" --condemning gay Americans, supporting the criminalization of abortion, and opposing evolution--appeals to the evangelical Christian base of the Republican party.
What happened next was the "Romney-boating" of Gingrich's campaign, in the words of Gingrich himself (a reference to the "Swift-boating" of John Kerry, the scurrilous attacks on Kerry's record of military service that were funded by Texas billionaire, T. Boone Pickens and others in 2004). Reports by NBC's Mike Isikoff and others indicate that a pro-Romney "independent" PAC blanketed the Iowa airwaves with over $3 million on ads against Gingrich in the past month. The Los Angeles Times reported that 1,200 anti-Gingrich spots had been run by candidates or PACs, primarily the pro-Romney PAC. Unlike the Swiftboat smears, the Gingrich ads tended to make claims tied to credible and documented investigative reports, like regarding the exhorbitant fees paid to Gingrich as a government "historian" of housing policy.
It was not Romney's official campaign that ran the ubiquitous ads attacking Gingrich, however. It was Romney's good friends over at the "Restore Our Future" PAC, spending about twice as much to go "negative" as Romney's official campaign was spending on positive ads. And it worked. Gingrich's momentum in Iowa, and his national polls numbers, crashed as the ads ran.
Santorum and Paul Evade the Glare of the Romney Super PAC, for Now
Santorum stayed out of the glare of the Super PAC attack ads and his on-the-ground time in Iowa as an out-of-work former senator helped him pick up the minority of GOP primary voters who identify strongly as "social conservatives," minus some percentage of that quadrant who share his views but caucused for Romney as the candidate perceived as having a better chance to beat President Barack Obama in November. Ron Paul, and his devoted libertarian disciples, also made a strong showing in Iowa, coming in just behind Santorum and Romney. Although there were some late-breaking attacks on Paul's controversial newsletters, he was not subjected to the barrage of ads orchestrated by Romney's pals.
In Iowa and for Gingrich, the Super PAC demonstrated that it can make a nearly decisive blow against the targeted opponent. The next several weeks will likely see the GOP front-runners subjected to major attack ads by PACs, while the candidates spend less on negative ads and spend more on largely positive ads. Obama will also be the subject of a growing chorus of attacks from these super front groups as the Republican field narrows and the really big money gets raised and spent.
The PAC Run by Romney's Former Campaign Strategist and Much More
The pro-Romney Super PAC that carpet bombed Iowa with ads against Gingrich is led by Carl Forti. Forti has been described as "Karl Rove's Karl Rove," and he has been a key player with Rove in creating American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which intend to raise and spend over $100 million to help defeat Obama's re-election effort.
Forti has also aided two other anti-Obama groups, the "60-Plus Association," which has repeatedly attacked Democrats with spurious claims about social security and health care, and the so-called "Americans for Job Security," which Public Citizen said should be called "Corporations Influencing Elections," a group created from an effort of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to attack the rights of union workers. But that's not all Forti has been up to. He also founded the "Black Rock Group," a PR firm, with Michael Dubke, who also leads "Crossroads Media." And, he's the former leader of "Freedom's Watch," a group that pushed Dick Cheney's miltary agenda. (CMD has articles linked above on its SourceWatch wiki that researchers can add to as well.)
But Carl Forti is more than the other "Karl" with a "C." He's also the man who ran Romney's campaign for president in 2008. He was perhaps Romney's closest advisor and strategist when Romney placed second in Iowa four years ago. To put this special role in context, Karl Rove was George W. Bush's political director and Rahm Emanuel was Bill Clinton's political director. The political director of a presidential campaign is the candidate's strategist and alter ego. And, now, Romney's former right-hand man is orchestrating the attacks on his biggest threats via the "Restore Our Future" PAC.
That's not all. Romney's former lawyer, Charles Spies, is also working for the PAC as its treasurer. Spies worked as Romney's General Counsel, basically his chief legal advisor, his consigliere, during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Romney's Former Chief Fundraiser now Raises Funds for the PAC
But, even that's not all. Steve Roche was the chief fundraiser for Romney's White House bid in 2008, and he held that same position until last summer. Roche left his post raising money directly for Romney to raise money directly for the PAC supporting Romney. He made the jump after the FEC lost its bid to limit contributions to PACs making supposedly "independent expenditures" that advocate for or against a candidate in political campaigns in the wake of the far-reaching Citizens United decision.
The upshot of all this?
Under long-standing federal laws to protect against corruption in elections, there are limits on how much money an individual can donate to a politician and to a political party. A person (not a corporation) can give no more than $2500 to a federal candidate per election (which has been known as "hard money") and can give no more than $30,800 to a national party committee a year (which is sometimes called "soft money" that could be spent on the candidate or other things). A person could also give only $5000 to a PAC and no more than $70,800 to all PACs and parties in a year. That is, until Citizens United. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that, under that precedent created by five Republican appointed judges, the $5000 PAC contribution limits for "express advocacy" for or against a candidate violated the Supreme Court's new interpretation of the First Amendment.
So, Roche moved over to the pro-Romney Super PAC where he could now raise unlimited money to be spent helping Romney win the election. And that is precisely what he is doing. Based on his leading role helping Romney raise money, Roche knows well who to ask for the unlimited pro-Romney donations the PAC can rake in now.
"It therefore Intends to Raise Funds in Unlimited Amounts . . . ."
Here's the kicker: each of the Super PACS like Restore Our Future filed a virtually identical letter last summer with the FEC stating that their activities would not be coordinated with the campaign and since they were "independent" the contribution limits did not apply under the new interpretation engrafted onto Americans' First Amendment. So, technically, this PAC and the others are "independent" and do not "coordinate" with the candidate's campaign. They simply know that attacking the candidate's biggest opponents will help. And, because it's not technically coordinated, if such an ad ever goes too far the candidate can always disavow it without any culpability or even any likelihood of offending the PAC's leaders or its donors. All these technicalities might make one wonder whether Romney and his former closest advisors ever talk and if they do what they actually discuss.
As can be seen from the letters, the PACs also make it quite clear that the gloves are off and they plan to raise unlimited funds. Romney himself has recently made a statement of "concern" about PAC spending, but his solution is for candidates to be able to accept unlimited cash directly. And, the Wall Street Journal's totally predictable editorial writers chimed in to agree with their Wall Street ally, Romney. Of course, Romney is also the guy who told Iowans the country should not raise taxes on corporations because "corporations are people, my friend," a view not shared by about 90% of Americans and a statement pilloried by Stephen Colbert and others.
Who Are the Moneybags and How Much Unlimited Money Has Gushed In?
The total haul of Romney's former fundraiser in his new gig seeking unlimited funds for the Super PAC will not be clear until reports are filed later this month. But, earlier disclosures filed with the FEC show that the Super PAC led by Romney's friends has raised big bucks from corporations and individuals. The bulk of the donations to this PAC are at an amount greater than the annual gross salary of the average American worker for an entire year. It's a veritable millionaire's club of donors unleashed by the Citizens United and SpeechNow cases to be able to spend as much as possible to influence the outcome in the 2012 elections.
There's a $500,000 donation from J.W. Marriott, Jr., the chairman of Marriott International, and another half million from Richard Marriott, the chairman of Host Hotels and Resorts.
There's a million dollars from Edward Conard (which was originally disclosed as coming from "W. Spann, LLC," a company that appeared to exist only to donate that million dollars, until calls for an investigation led to a "correction"). Conard is a former executive with Romney's old firm Bain Capital, the firm that specialized in "leveraged buyouts" where companies were purchased based on debt against the companies' assets and executives got sweet equity deals for selling the corporate assets (and which often resulted in lost jobs and benefits for other employees).
Plus, there was a million dollar donation from billionaire John Paulson, who reportedly got richer betting that the U.S housing market would collapse. And, there were numerous $100,000 donations from an array of other millionaires.
The Super PAC also raised major money from for-profit corporations, such as Eli Publishing ($1 million), F8, LLC ($1 million), The Villages of Lake Sumter, Inc., in Florida ($250,000), 2GIG Technologies ($100,000), the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies ($100,000), Unit 8N ($40,000), and B/E Aerospace Inc. ($50,000).
The total raised by the pro-Romney PAC in the first half of 2011 was over $12 million. Do you think any of these donors wants anything in return? The Supreme Court claims there is no risk of corruption warranting regulation of such spending. Americans across the country know the Court is completely out of touch with reality on this or simply has its own agenda, like Bush v. Gore on steroids.
This Doesn't Even Include Spending on Election "Issue" Ads
This snapshot of the Super PAC that seems so close to Romney does not detail the spending on so-called "issue ads" by groups that do not even file reports with the FEC of their donors. For example, the anti-labor "National Right to Work Committee" sent mailers to Iowans about whether Gingrich or Romney would work agains the unions. Increasingly, tax-exempt organizations have been running ads near elections, as with some of the operations of the billionaire Koch brothers such as David Koch's Americans for Prosperity (AFP) that has been busy running ads in advance of the impending election to recall controversial Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. AFP does not disclose its donors and the Kochs keep their income and tax records secret, as is their right under current law.
Notably, Romney himself has refused to disclose his own tax filings so that American voters can better understand his income and tax record, despite efforts by Occupy activists to force him to come clean.
To be fair, several of the other candidates are also the beneficiaries of Super PACs that support them, although Restore Our Future had reported the most donations in the first half of 2011. And, some Democrats have announced that they will be forming Super PACs to try to compete with these PACs and support the re-election effort.
The current disclosure rules for the Super PACs do shed some light on some of the money being raised and spent in the elections, but disclosure is not enough to cure the corruption of the democratic process by this kind of spending. Disclosure also does nothing to relieve the pressure the availability of big money puts on all candidates to curry favor with the wealthiest few in order to sway the poorer masses with attack ads or to avoid a costly election fight, making politicians more responsive to the richest few rather than to the needs of their ordinary taxpayeing constituents, undermining what it means to be a democracy of the people, by the people, for the people.
Another reason why disclosure is so weak is that stories like this detailing the dealings of a Super PAC simply cannot be seen by everyone who sees the ads that are run. And, there is little incentive for candidates to get into ad wars about each other's billionaire donors, and so the chance of ads by one PAC or candidate describing who paid for the attack ad of another is slim to none.
Foreclosure Millionaires R Us?
Still, it is difficult to imagine that voters would be as persuaded by an attack ad that was described as paid for by the billionaire who made it big betting millions of Americans would lose their homes to foreclosure. But who can be against efforts to "Restore Our Future?" The question really is whose future is being restored. People like Mr. Paulson's or yours.
But, you'd never know for sure whose future was at stake and who was footing the bill based on the Super PAC attack ads themselves. The one thing that is for sure, though, is that Super PAC money is super corrupting our not so super democracy thanks to a super bad Supreme Court.
© 2012 Center for Media & Democracy