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Tangled Ties of Super PACs

Super PACs are pouring tens of millions of dollars into the 2012 election season — and a healthy percentage of it into the pockets of friends, family members and business associates who serve as consultants and vendors to the political action committees.

As super PACs steer big money to media strategists, pollsters and advertisers, some consultants worry that the little-regulated groups are creating fresh avenues for conflicts, self-dealing and ethics
controversies.

In some cases, the people cashing in on lucrative super PAC contracts are the friends, colleagues and even relatives of the people running and advising those same PACs. And unlike on conventional, candidate-run campaigns or at political party committees, no politician or official is watching where the money goes or answering to regulators.

“Where are the checks and balances?” asked Kentucky-based political consultant Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants. Emmons said his association is “paying close attention to” the super PAC trend and will host a panel on the topic at its annual conference in March.

Ushered in by the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 ruling to deregulate independent corporate and union campaign spending, super PACs have drawn fire over lack of disclosure and alleged coordination with candidates. Such PACs operate largely outside the rules not only in terms of how they raise money, but how they spend it as well.

Consultants are flocking to super PACs because they’re a lucrative new money source, and they enjoy relative autonomy. The top 10 super PACs have already dropped close to $22 million on this election, according to the latest tally from the Center for Responsive Politics, sometimes outspending the candidates they endorse. For every dollar spent, consultants get a commission.

With super PAC clients, “you don’t have the campaign structure; you don’t have the spouse,” said Tom Edmonds, president of the Arlington, Va., media consulting firm Edmonds Associates. “It’s like being the cavalry rather than the foot soldiers. It’s a lot of fun. So it’s changed the business in that regard.”

But not every consultant gets to cash in.

“There are people who grumble that super PACs are very closely held and so it’s not a lot of work for a lot of people if they aren’t in line and know somebody,” said Art Hackney, CEO of the consulting shop of Hackney & Hackney, which has offices in Alaska and Virginia.

Hackney’s firm landed work as a vendor for the GOP super PAC American Crossroads and with its affiliated nonprofit, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, on the strength of his friendships with the groups’ organizers, he said. It makes sense that super PAC leaders steer work to their longtime allies and friends, political professional say.

But the overlapping relationships in the close-knit world of super PACs, political parties and consultants also point up ethical gray areas. For example:

• GOP communications consultant Larry McCarthy is one of three organizers on the board of Restore Our Future, the top-spending presidential super PAC, which backs former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. McCarthy is also president of the consulting firm of McCarthy Hennings Media, one of the PAC’s top vendors, which has handled more than $100,000 worth of media production for the PAC.

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