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As he marches to the lead in the GOP presidential money primary, Mitt Romney is getting help from a collection of political action committees that have drawn fire from both his allies and his critics.
Outside PACs helping Romney include super PACs as well as state-based PACs, both of which operate outside the strict federal limits that apply to Romney's campaign committee.
Organizers behind a leading Romney super PAC have raised questions about who's behind a mysterious trio of competing super PACs, also reportedly set up to help Romney. And Democrats have complained to the Federal Election Commission that Romney's state PACs might have violated election laws.
Romney's strength as a fundraiser has long derived, in part, from his aggressive use of PACs. In the 2010 cycle, Romney's federal leadership PAC, known as Free and Strong America, collected just more than $9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Romney's campaign reported raising $18.25 million in the second quarter of this year, giving him a clear money lead over other GOP hopefuls in the field. While Romney's total fell slightly short of what he had raised at the same point in the 2008 race, a Romney-friendly super PAC dubbed Restore Our Future has collected $12 million this year — casting Romney's haul in a more positive light.
Run by a trio of Romney loyalists, Restore Our Future PAC is so far the only super PAC run in support of a GOP presidential primary candidate. Organizers include election lawyer Charles R. Spies, who was general counsel for Romney's presidential bid in 2008, and GOP operatives Carl Forti and Larry McCarthy, who also worked on Romney's campaign.
The PAC gives donors who want to contribute beyond federal limits "an outlet to do that," one organizer said. As a result of recent Supreme Court and FEC rulings, super PACs may raise unlimited corporate and union donations as long as they fully disclose their activities, and they also operate independently from candidates and parties.
The PAC will also help Romney with counterattacks from Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC that has run TV ads in South Carolina attacking Romney on Medicare, Romney's supporters said.
Democrats aren't the only ones worrying Restore Our Future PAC's organizers, however. Last month, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that another former Romney campaign aide, GOP consultant Robert Jentgens, launched three of his own super PACs in Iowa, Florida and South Carolina. The general counsel for the three PACs — dubbed Jobs for Iowa, Jobs for Florida and Jobs for South Carolina — is Texas lawyer and GOP operative Chris Gober, the center reported.
That report triggered alarm bells among Romney allies, and Restore Our Future organizers regard the trio of new Jentgens-run PACs with suspicion. Jentgens served only briefly on the Romney campaign, noted one GOP organizer, who added: "I have no clue what his agenda is. But I'm suspicious that it has nothing to do with helping Gov. Romney."
Neither Jentgens nor Gober was available for comment.
The presence of multiple pro-Romney PACs, not all in harmony, underscores the unpredictable role such PACs may play in 2012. Candidates have no control over the messages of PACs that by law must operate independently, election lawyers note, and in some cases such outside efforts can hurt candidates more than help.
Separately, an array of state PACs affiliated with Romney have drawn criticism in recent days. Before announcing his candidacy June 2, Romney got a boost from state PACs in Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Such PACs are controversial because they operate under a patchwork of disclosure and contribution limits. In Alabama, state PACs may raise large corporate donations banned at the federal level.
On July 14, the New Hampshire and Alabama Democratic parties filed an FEC complaint alleging that Romney's state PACs are raising nonfederal money in violation of election laws. The complaint amended an initial complaint filed in April, saying the PACs may still be running. The Romney campaign could not be reached for comment, but a Romney spokesman told the Washington Post that the complaint is "pathetic," without merit and politically motivated.