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Rules of the Game: Dissecting Super PAC Consulting

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The super PAC’s organizers “wanted people with integrity, who were loyal to Newt, and who had experience — who had the skills we were looking for,” said Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Winning Our Future. Media Advantage and Empire Creative are run by longtime GOP consultant Ken Kurson, Tyler said. He added that Marketel Media is run by Sam Hassell, an Internet marketing specialist who’s worked for a conservative advocacy group. Hassell also runs Intelimarc, according to Pro Publica.

Not all super PAC money lines the pockets of consultants themselves, of course. When media firms place ads, the bulk of the super PAC’s money ends up in the hands of the TV and radio stations running the messages. Political consultants keep only a percentage as commission.

Nor does anyone suggest that consultants with close super PAC ties are breaking the law. Unlike political candidates, who are barred from using campaign money for personal use, super PACs operate in a largely rules-free zone. Super PAC organizers, moreover, stress that the industry polices itself because reputation is the coin of the realm and bad actors are quickly driven from the business.

Still, some consultants worry that the boom in unrestricted money spells danger for their industry. Unlike candidate campaigns and even political party committees, which tend to run on passions and volunteers, super PACs appear largely driven by one thing: money. Unhampered by the contribution limits that constrain candidates, they are also arguably less accountable to voters.

“Donors should beware,” said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “To the extent that a donor is going to make a contribution to a super PAC, he should know full well that there are no restrictions on what the super PAC can do with the money — other than the prohibition on making contributions to the candidates or coordinating expenditures with candidates.”

Twice since 2009, the Federal Election Commission has recommended that Congress extend the ban on candidates using campaign funds for personal use to all political committees, including PACs and super PACs. The FEC pointed to a “growing problem” in the area of “unauthorized disbursements” by such committees. Given the confluence of big money and lax oversight at super PACs, that problem appears only likely to grow.

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