Millions of ‘Super PAC’ dollars flow through Tampa and into races nationwide (Corrected)
“What the heck is an earmark?” asks a woman to herself in a coffee shop reading the right-leaning Las Vegas Review-Journal in an ad created by the Ending Spending Fund. “Says here Harry Reid tried to funnel over $3 million of our hard-earned tax dollars to a big campaign donor’s company. That seems pretty shady.”
The ad comes from an $837,582 ad production and media buy for a group that only incorporated on Oct. 5. Ending Spending is the largest outside group to spend in Nevada’s competitive U.S. Senate race, aside from the Karl Rove-formed American Crossroads and its “social welfare”-offshoot, American Crossroads GPS, which does not have to disclose its donors.
Before ending up on Nevada TV screens, the money for the anti-Reid ad cycled through Florida.
Ending Spending is one of four “super PACs” registered since late September to Nancy Watkins, a CPA at Robert Watkins and Co., at 610 South Blvd. in Tampa, an address well known in Florida political circles. Collectively, groups registered to that address have spent close to $2.9 million in races across the country, all within the last five weeks of the election. Because many of the groups formed after the October quarterly filing date, they won’t have to disclose the names of their donors till after the election.
Independent-expenditure-only committees are new to this election cycle, a consequence of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and a D.C. Circuit Court decision in Speech Now v. FEC. Such groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing candidates.
Watkins is the registered agent for many committees operating not only in Florida, but across the country, the vast majority of which support Republican causes.
Thirty-two PACs are registered to the Watkins firm through the Florida Division of Elections and 24 committees are registered through the FEC. Fifty-eight 527s have registered there with the IRS since 2001. The groups range from campaign committees to groups with banal-sounding names, such as the “Common Sense Committee” or the “Alliance for a Strong Economy,” which takes donations from interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Legal Institute and U.S. Sugar and transfers them to the Republican Party of Florida.
The FEC fined Watkins $99,000 in February 2009 for failing to file contribution notices and exceeding contribution limits in her work as the treasurer of the Mel Martinez Senate campaign. See correction below.
Watkins would only answer “technical” questions about the groups registered in her name when reached by phone Friday. “I provide a service to them. We are a CPA firm,” she said. She added that she provides a service just like a “shoe factory makes shoes.”
The independent-expenditure-only “Super PAC” committees are perfect for corporations and unions that want to spend for or against candidates. Former McCain ’08 counsel and FEC Chairman Trevor Potter described them as the “holy grail” of campaign finance to The Washington Post.
“There’s much less disclosure than even with 527s and there’s no danger in running afoul of the law by accepting large individual contributions, or contributions from previously prohibited sources–corporations and labor unions,” wrote Rick Hasen, the William H. Hannon Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola Law School and author of the Election Law blog, in an email.
“Super PACs” do have to disclose their donors (unlike 501(c)(4) social welfare groups such as American Crossroads GPS), but many of them are simply too new. Ending Spending incorporated on Oct. 5, and voluntarily disclosed that its sole financier and founder was Joe Ricketts, owner of the Chicago Cubs and founder and former CEO of Ameritrade. The group is soliciting other donations as well.
Independent-expenditure-only committees aren’t only showing up in high-profile Senate races; they pop up in House races, too.
“The New York Three. Owens. Arcuri. Maffei. They backed the health care takeover,” says the narrator in an ad for Super PAC for America, targeting three upstate New York congressmen. (Arcuri actually voted against the health care reform bill that became law in March, but he did vote for an earlier House version that passed in November 2009.)
An earlier ad by Super PAC for America, aired in Idaho, claimed that Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, voted for the stimulus, when in fact, he did not.
Super PAC for America was registered to Watkins at 610 South Blvd. on Oct. 4. The PAC was founded by Dick Morris, the former Clinton White House advisor who resigned after being photographed with prostitutes and is now a staunch conservative commentator who frequently appears on Fox News to bash Democrats.
“Our plan is for the Republicans to win 100 seats in this year’s congressional elections. Yes, that’s right—100 seats! I have studied the numbers very carefully, and we believe that this can be done and will send a shockwave through Washington and around the world,” wrote Morris in an email asking for donations.
The group seems to have backed off from its 100-seat claim, running ads against only 16 congressmen. (Super PAC did not reply to an email seeking comment.) The group had raised $4,150,132 as of Sunday afternoon, according to its website.
The independent-expenditure-only groups registered at 610 South Blvd. air ads and send mail in Florida, too. The We Love USA PAC, incorporated on Sept. 22, has put up billboards, driven around mobile billboard on a truck, aired an ad and sent out mailers supporting Florida 22nd District candidate Allen West and opposing the incumbent, Ron Klein.
The group also calls President Obama unpatriotic in its mission statement: “Unlike most socialist (sic) such as Castro and Chavez, Obama is different. Communist and Socialist leaders love their country and think their people are superior to others. Obama and the left in this country detest America and much of what we stand for.”
Out of the $82,050 raised by We Love USA before its October quarterly filing, $55,000 came from the wife of Daniel Kaufman, owner of Reagan Wireless. The group has spent over $126,000 total. A call to the group was not returned.
In late August, no-party candidate for governor Bud Chiles (who eventually dropped out and endorsed Democrat Alex Sink) held a press conference outside Watkins’ office, a beige single-story building in suburban Tampa, calling for greater transparency from the political committees organized there. “This building behind me is ground zero for what’s wrong with Florida politics,” he said. “What’s being hidden from Florida voters?”
He dubbed 610 South Blvd. a home for “legal money laundering.”
Luke Johnson reports on Florida for The American Independent.
We mistakenly reported that Watkins had been fined by the FEC for her work with Mel Martinez’s 2004 campaign. In fact, according to the FEC filing, Watkins “became Treasurer of the Committee after the transactions” in question, and “did not provide any services in connection with such transactions.” We apologize for the error.