Last June, a political action committee called the Freedom, Security, Prosperity PAC formed and started collecting checks from Florida donors.
The fund was not identified with any federal candidate, but there were some clues as to who might be behind it: The majority of donors were executives at Hooters, the suggestively named chain of restaurants known for its busty wait staff in short shorts and tight tops.
Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) worked for the chain as a marketing consultant before winning a state House seat in 2000 that paved the way for a successful Congressional run four years later.
A month after the PAC formed, its treasurer, Washington, D.C., lawyer and lobbyist Craig Engle, signed on as treasurer of Mack’s re-election campaign.
Jeff Cohen, Mack’s chief of staff, said last week that the lawmaker formed the PAC “in order to have an appropriate vehicle to help elect Republicans that he wants to support and to help our party.” It was the first public confirmation that Mack controls the fund. Under current campaign finance law, Members of Congress can set up leadership PACs to gather money from supporters and distribute it to party committees or other candidates looking to goose their campaign accounts.
Increasingly, since the “personal use” restrictions on re-election committees effectively don’t apply to PACs, they also have been tapped to cover other expenses, including meals for the lawmakers behind them and thank-you gifts for big donors. Most recently, House Members with PACs have used them to circumvent the chamber’s new ban on lobbyist-funded travel, couching some trips with lobbyists as fundraisers for the accounts, which then pay the lawmakers’ way.
All of those activities so far are permissible. And lawmakers can engage in them without having to publicly disclose their affiliation with their PACs.
Now, as House Democrats wrestle with the final details of their ethics reform proposal, some voices on and off Capitol Hill are calling for a simple change: requiring lawmakers to reveal the accounts they control.
“Absolutely, it’s something that should be disclosed,” said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates transparency in Congress. “If money is coming into something controlled by a politician, you should know who that politician is.”
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) agrees. He is pushing a bill called the Leadership PAC Disclosure Act. First introduced last year, the measure would require every leadership PAC to name the lawmaker behind it in its statement of organization and in all follow-up reports. It also would require the Federal Election Commission to clearly display that information on its Web site.
“If we want to improve and hopefully strengthen people’s trust in government, these leadership PACs should have to expose who they are. It’s absolutely critical,” Jones said. He said he is seeking meetings with committee leaders to bring new attention to the bill in hopes that it will get included in a reform package set to roll out in coming weeks.
Since leadership PACs began proliferating in the mid-1990s, campaign finance experts have debated whether the accounts should be considered affiliated with the re-election campaigns of Members who control them. Those in favor of the PACs have argued that considering them legally linked to lawmakers would mean subjecting them to the overall contribution limits on campaign accounts, thereby defeating their purpose as a source of extra funds.
The Federal Election Commission ruled on the matter in late 2003, determining broadly that leadership PACs in fact would not be considered affiliated with lawmakers’ campaign committees.
“It gave the green light that you no longer had to worry about creating distance between the leadership PAC and the Member,” said Marc Elias, a campaign finance lawyer.
Nevertheless, most lawmakers continued to form leadership PACs quietly, kicking them off with no public announcement.
Two groups that track the accounts — the Center for Responsive Politics and CQ PoliticalMoneyLine — rely on sleuth work to figure out who is behind them.
Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center, said when a new fund pops up, researchers there first look at its name to decide whether it’s a leadership PAC, rather than a corporate or ideological fund. A patriotic name — such as the Pro-Liberty PAC, for California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — or one that seems to be an acronym — Every Republican is Crucial, or ERIC PAC, for House Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — usually signals a lawmaker controls it.
The groups then examine the address listed to try to narrow it down to a delegation. They compare treasurers, banks, vendors and contributors to see if there is a heavy overlap with any campaign committees.
Kent Cooper, of CQ PoliticalMoneyLine, said he also keeps an eye peeled for mentions, often in the society pages, of fundraising events. They sometimes list lawmakers as “honorary chairmen” of the PACs — usually a strong tip-off that a Member is behind the fund. When an account stumps him, he scours subsequent reports for new clues.
After a leading suspect emerges, the groups said they call the lawmaker’s office to confirm. “Sometimes they will be cagey about it,” Ritsch said. “Other times they will be very proud they’ve reached a point where they can fill the coffers of another committee.”
On Monday morning, Cooper was puzzling over a PAC called Conservative Opportunities for a New America. Records for the fund showed payments to Increase Strategies, a political consulting firm also retained by the campaign of Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). It was registered in Midland, Texas, located in Conaway’s 11th district, and its title seemed to be an acronym for the first letters of his last name.
Cooper called the office and left a message. A couple hours later, a Conaway staffer returned the call and confirmed: It was a match.
In total, Cooper’s group has identified 729 leadership PACs and joint fundraising committees associated with lawmakers, but most of them are not currently active.
The Center for Responsive Politics has nailed 284 leadership PACs for current Members, with six of those inactive last year. Ritsch said the group is working through a list of nearly 200 additional committees, though researchers expect only a small number of them are linked to lawmakers.
“It’s ‘CSI: D.C.’ trying to figure out who these PACs belong to,” Ritsch said. “There is no reason why the public or those who follow money in politics should have to become detectives to learn about leadership PACs.”
Neither group has Mack’s fund listed. After organizing in early summer, the PAC spent months with no money in its coffers. Then, in late October and early November, it collected $17,000, with $11,000 of that coming from Hooters executives. The account later refunded $1,000 in excessive contributions from one of the execs.
Only two of those donors — Edward Droste and David Lageschulte — also contributed to Mack’s re-election campaign. Droste, who listed himself as an executive with Hooters Management Corp. when he cut a check to the leadership PAC, identified himself as president of the Provident Companies on three checks worth a total of $5,900 he wrote to Mack’s re-election campaign. For both contributions he made, Lageschulte listed himself as an executive with LTP Management, the company Mack worked for and an owner of a number of Hooters restaurants.
Mack has reason not to brag about the support of his former colleagues. His affiliation with Hooters at times has proved a political liability. In his first race for the Florida state House, his Democratic opponent used the work in attacks on Mack’s party-boy past, which included some barroom fights and brushes with the law.
Cohen, his chief of staff, said setting up the leadership PAC was “not at all” an attempt to obscure the source of the lawmaker’s funds.
“It’s no secret that before being elected to Congress, Connie worked for a company called LTP in Fort Myers that owns a number of restaurants, including Hooters,” he said. “We’ve followed whatever the law requires the PAC to do. ... In terms of the way it was rolled out, the paperwork was filed accordingly, the PAC came into existence, and those involved have been following the rules ever since.”
He said he was unsure whether his boss would support the Jones bill without having read the language. It currently has no co-sponsors.
Sen Mary Landrieu, D-La., poses for a selfie with LSU football fans as she campaigns at tailgate parties on the Louisiana State University campus before the LSU-Mississippi State game on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Buy photo here.