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.
• The executive director of the Democrat-friendly Majority PAC, Monica Dixon, is married to one of the consultants doing work for the super PAC. Her husband is David Dixon, one of two partners running the Dixon/Davis Media Group.
• Another Majority PAC vendor is Ralston Lapp Media, co-founded by John Lapp. He’s married to Ali Lapp, executive director of another pro-Democrat super PAC, the House Majority PAC, which works closely with the Majority PAC. John Lapp is also a consultant for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is required by law to operate at arm’s length from the super PAC.
• Longtime Republican operative Carl Forti holds an official post at both the GOP super PAC American Crossroads and at the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. Forti’s consulting firm, the Black Rock Group, gets paid by American Crossroads. That super PAC also has steered millions in ad contracts to the consulting firm Crossroads Media, where Forti’s business associate Michael Dubke is a partner. Dubke is a partner at both the Black Rock Group and at Crossroads Media, which share the same address in Alexandria, Va.
Consultants and super PAC organizers downplayed these close relationships. Democratic consultant J.B. Poersch, a strategist for Majority PAC, said the super PAC was simply looking for a vendor with experience in Nebraska, and Dixon/Davis Media fit the bill.
“Dixon/Davis is one of several firms that we use,” he said. “I wanted to use them in part because of their past success in Nebraska.”
At House Majority PAC, Ali Lapp said her husband’s work for the DCCC does not raise coordination questions because the two observe strict professional rules as a married couple: “John and I simply don’t talk about House campaigns that he is working on,” she said.
Asked whether super PACs can profit for their organizers, Forti responded: “I don’t operate that way.”
He argued that independent spending is nothing new, and that super PACs are not so different from the issue groups that preceded them.
“It strikes me that people are blowing it out of proportion,” he said of the super PAC phenomenon. “Outside groups have been involved for years.”
Some, such as McCarthy, did not respond to requests for comment. One Republican associated with a major super PAC said political action committee leaders and consultants who violate ethics standards won’t stay in business long.
“Accountability comes from your reputation,” said the consultant, who asked not to be named. “There will be scrutiny on how PACs spend their money and how effective their activities are. And that reflects on the individuals running them.”
But super PACs are operating in new and even dangerous territory, some consultants warn. While the American Association of Political Consultants asks its members to sign an ethics code, the industry remains largely unpoliced.
“When you have the wild, wild west of money, are there going to be more opportunities for conflict? Absolutely,” said Democratic media consultant John Rowley, president of Fletcher Rowley. “There’s no doubt about it. But if something illegal isn’t done, there’s not really a way to police political consulting propriety.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.