A political action committee that raised more than $1 million from tea party and conservative activists in the last election cycle spent very little of that money actually supporting candidates.
Instead, RightMarch.com — which has ties to perennial political candidate Alan Keyes and has supported the campaigns of Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) — spent the bulk of its cash on fundraising, often through vendors with close ties to the PAC.
The PAC reported raising $271,000 from April 1 to June 30. During that same period, it paid out $237,000 to an Arizona-based company called Political Advertising, whose business is described in corporate filings as “telephone fundraising.” The PAC reported no political donations for the quarter.
Run by frequent tea party speaker and libertarian activist William Greene, RightMarch.com is influential in the world of online conservative activism. The PAC regularly writes letters to Congress with groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.
It runs primarily on small contributions from its mailing list of 350,000, which formed from a petition started in 2003 to “counter the well-financed antics of radical left-wing groups like MoveOn.org.”
While RightMarch.com is outspoken on issues such as illegal immigration and taxes, it doesn’t appear to put much money behind them. During the 2010 cycle, less than 3 percent of the total $1.2 million RightMarch.com spent went to candidates and their campaigns, according to the group’s Federal Election Commission reports.
Greene — whose own company Strategic Internet Campaign Management has received more than $93,000 from RightMarch.com for copywriting, creative fees and advocacy — initially agreed to be interviewed for this story. But he did not respond to multiple follow-up attempts to conduct an interview.
Of its $1.2 million total, the group paid almost $1.1 million to Political Advertising.
It’s unclear who runs Political Advertising or how it operates. Job openings listed by its owner, Political Call Center, describe the business as “outbound fundraising for nonprofit conservative issues.” Neither firm responded to interview requests, and the registered agent for the parent company declined to comment.
During the 2008 elections, RightMarch.com paid Political Advertising more than $500,000 to make phone calls opposing Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, which the PAC reported as independent expenditures.
But none of $1.4 million paid to Political Advertising since has been listed as an independent expenditure for or against any candidate. Lawrence Noble, a campaign finance expert with Skadden law firm, said that kind of spending is “very unusual.”
“If a PAC has been around for a while, you don’t expect it to spend 90 percent of its money on fundraising,” Noble said. “Whenever you see money going to one company, it obviously raises questions about what’s happening to all that money.”
Since it formed eight years ago, RightMarch.com has consistently spent most of its money on overhead costs, including payments to its president and his colleagues.
The PAC has given more than $42,000 to Diener Consultants, a company run by former RightMarch.com media director Phil Sheldon, and about $26,000 to Response Enterprises, another firm with ties to Sheldon.
A 501(c)(4) nonprofit associated with RightMarch.com PAC paid Greene $76,000 in 2006 for advertising and promotion work. Tax forms list a director for the nonprofit, William Smiley, and a secretary treasurer, Ronald Smedley. Neither could be reached for comment.
When Greene ran for a Congressional seat in his home state of Georgia in the 2008 election, RightMarch.com PAC gave about $5,000 to his campaign — the highest contribution the group has ever made to a candidate in one election cycle.
RightMarch.com also contributed $500 to the 2010 Arizona Senatorial campaign of Chris Simcox, who once ran Minuteman PAC, a group that gave $5,000 to Greene’s campaign.
William Constantine, a former accountant for RightMarch.com and Minuteman PAC, said he stopped working with RightMarch.com seven years ago because, “I didn’t really agree with them.”
“I have absolutely no idea what RightMarch.com is or what it has been doing for years,” Constantine said, declining to elaborate.
According to media reports, Greene, Sheldon, Constantine and Simcox have all at various times worked on one of Keyes’ campaigns for public office.
RightMarch.com reported donating $5,000 to Keyes’ 2008 presidential campaign, and a 2006 Washington Times article said the PAC raised more than $500,000 for Keyes’ 2004 Senatorial campaign.
Last year, RightMarch.com also promoted a Caribbean cruise on Facebook that would allow activists to “learn REAL grassroots activism with Alan Keyes.”
While RightMarch.com’s dealings might raise questions, they do not seem to break any laws. PACs have no legal limits on how they spend the money they raise.
“The treasurer of a PAC could go out and buy a car with your money,” said Paul Ryan of the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.
RightMarch.com isn’t the only group to take advantage of the light regulations on PACs.
In 2007, the Washington Post reported that Republican Linda Chavez profited from several PACs she ran. The following year, Roll Call found that BMW Direct, which raised money for GOPAC, spent 95 percent of its money on expenses, much of it paid to in-house vendors.
A group called the Republican Majority Campaign appears to be operating similarly to RightMarch.com, with most of its money also going to Political Advertising and Sheldon’s Diener Consultants.
Ryan said PACs with this structure might simply exist to provide jobs for the people running them.
In Greene’s case, RightMarch.com has helped elevate his profile in conservative circles. Julianne Thompson, who coordinates Tea Party Patriots’ activities in Greene’s home state of Georgia, said he frequently speaks at rallies there. Last year, Thompson — who described Greene as “a Ron Paul tea party person” — invited him to discuss the Federal Reserve on a tea party show that aired online.
Greene also spoke at a large tea party protest on the National Mall in September 2009 during the health care debate. As Congress convened for a final vote on the massive overhaul the following March, Greene helped pay for a tea party bus to Washington, D.C. He then emailed RightMarch.com members about it, asking them to donate to his PAC.
As the tea party movement swelled, so did RightMarch.com’s earnings. In 2009, the PAC sought donations by invoking the names of tea party candidates such as Paul and Rubio. But RightMarch.com gave the two candidates a combined $1,500 that election, while generating nearly $1.4 million for the PAC.
The 2010 election cycle set a record for the group, doubling its earnings from the previous cycle. RightMarch.com has since continued on a path of growth. It has already raised more than $375,000 for the 2012 cycle, of which $328,000 went to Political Advertising.
Most contributions RightMarch.com receives are in increments of $200 or less, so the donors don’t have to be disclosed. Many come to the site through action alerts the group emails and posts online.
The alerts urge activists to pay $19 to $169 for RightMarch.com to fax Congress on their behalf, even though many of the alerts note that activists could email Members for free.
On its website, RightMarch.com lists that it has sent millions of such messages to Congress over the years. Its latest campaign relates to the debt ceiling.
“We’ve joined the coalition to FORCE Congress to Cut, Cap, and Balance the budget — but in order for this to work, we need YOUR help,” the site says. “Send your faxes now!”