When GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gave his victory speech in Missouri after the primary there on Feb. 7, he shared the stage with a white-haired gentleman who stood practically at his elbow the entire time.
Investment fund manager Foster Friess probably did not strike audience members as someone special as he smiled merrily behind the former Pennsylvania Senator. But Friess is at the center of a growing controversy over unregulated money and alleged campaign finance violations in the 2012 campaign.
At issue is whether unrestricted super PACs are illegally working hand-in-hand with the candidates they support. Campaign finance watchdogs say the collusion is flagrant. Super PAC organizers argue just as loudly that they are meticulously following the rules.
Strangely, both are correct. That's because Federal Election Commission rules define "improper coordination" so narrowly that political players would have to step far over the line to violate them. What's striking about the wide-open spending in 2012 is not what's illegal, say some election lawyers — it's what's now permitted.
"The real scandal in 2012 is how much potentially corrupting activity is perfectly legal," said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
The coordination paradox stems in part from the Supreme Court's explanation for why it threw out restrictions on unlimited corporate and union money in its landmark Citizens United v. FEC ruling. The high court lifted limits only on money doled out at arm's length from candidates and parties. Because big money would be independent, the court rationalized, candidates wouldn't risk corruption.
To campaign finance watchdogs — and arguably to average voters — the notion that high-dollar super PACs are independent from their candidates looks ridiculous on its face. Friess, for example, has given $1 million to a pro-Santorum super PAC even as he travels with and shares the stage with Santorum, reportedly advising the super PAC on the nature of its ads.
Other presidential super PACs have shared consultants with the candidates they support, used ad footage from the candidates' campaigns and arranged for the candidates or their representatives to appear at fundraisers. The super PACs behind the GOP presidential hopefuls and President Barack Obama were set up by former aides to the candidates.
Obama's recent announcement that he would dispatch campaign and even Cabinet officials to appear at fundraising events for Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting the president, has ramped up complaints. Campaign officials for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney quickly announced that they, too, would allow senior aides to headline fundraising events for the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.