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Roll Call

Super PAC, Outside Spending Chiefs Make Big Bucks

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Donohue pulled in $5.5 million in 2012, making him one of the top-paid association executives in the nation that year.

Recently released tax forms shed light on the big salaries that an elite corps of political organizers earned during the 2012 elections — and those who made the most often boasted the fewest wins.

The new disclosures reveal fresh specifics about the six- and seven-figure salaries reaped by the political consultants, lawyers, fundraisers and media buyers who ran the top super PACs and politically active nonprofits in 2012. Such groups spent more than $1 billion in the first presidential contest since the Supreme Court deregulated independent campaign spending, shattering all previous records, and political professionals cashed in.

The size of their payday has, until recently, been undisclosed. Many super PACs that reported their spending to the Federal Election Commission omitted salary or payroll information, making it impossible to know just how much their top executives made.

But many such political action committees ran tax-exempt affiliates, which must file a Form 990 with the IRS. Though such forms withhold donor names, they do — for the most part — list the salaries of top executives. Dozens of big-spending political nonprofits, having requested filing extensions of up to six months, finally submitted their 990s late last year.

The new filings show that liberal groups, which in many cases outperformed their conservative counterparts, typically paid their executives less money. Liberal super PAC, nonprofit and labor salaries tend to land in the $250,000 to the (at most) $600,000 range, while many conservative organizers are pulling in at least a half-million, and several make into the millions over an election cycle. Findings from the new IRS 990 forms include:

Steven Law, the president of the American Crossroads super PAC and its tax-exempt affiliate, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, made $1.1 million during the election cycle. That includes $602,935 from Crossroads GPS in 2011 and $637,562 in 2012. Together the super PAC and the nonprofit spent more than $325 million on the election but had an underwhelming return on investment. According to the Sunlight Foundation, 1.3 percent of the super PAC’s money supported candidates who won and opposed candidates who lost in the general election. The Crossroads GPS return on investment was 14.4 percent.

Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, a political organization that supports female Democrats who back abortion rights, received a $263,194 salary for the entire 2012 cycle, according to Political MoneyLine data derived from FEC reports. The EMILY’s List super PAC Women Vote spent $7.7 million in the 2012 elections and had an 80 percent return on investment, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue pulled in $5.5 million in 2012, making him one of the top-paid association executives in the nation that year. For the entire election cycle, Donohue made $10.4 million, according to the chamber’s 990s from 2011 and 2012. Said chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes: “Tom Donohue leads the largest, most active and most influential trade organization in the world and our board compensates him accordingly.”

Rebecca Burkett, a little-known campaign consultant from Georgia, made more running Winning Our Future, the super PAC that backed losing GOP presidential nominee and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, than many of the nation’s leading labor union presidents make in a year. Burkett earned more than $500,000 during her tenure as the Gingrich super PAC’s chief organizer, according to Political MoneyLine. By comparison, Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which spent $23 million on the election, made $288,303 during the 2012 calendar year.

Even the recent tax disclosures leave plenty of blanks. Take Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that backed President Barack Obama, and its tax-exempt affiliate, Priorities USA. Together, the two groups spent $65.2 million in the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But it’s not clear how much senior Democratic strategist Bill Burton made running the operation. Priorities USA, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, reports paying Burton $95,736. The super PAC reports $239,219 in “payroll” expenditures to Burton. That brings his total to as much as $334,955. But because of reporting anomalies between the FEC and the IRS, that total may not tell the whole story. Burton did not respond to requests for comment.

The top GOP super PAC backing Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, listed no salary lines or payroll recipients by name on its FEC public disclosures. This drew fire from watchdogs who complained that the super PAC shared vendors and even consultants with Romney, violating rules that bar coordination between candidates and the outside groups that back them.

At the center of those complaints was GOP fundraiser Steve Roche, who ran a fundraising firm called Podium Capital Group. As the super PAC’s top vendor, that firm was paid $7.3 million by Restore Our Future, according to the CRP. But how much of a cut went to Roche — whether 2 percent or 12 percent, both within industry standards — remains unanswered. Roche did not return a message seeking comment.

Moreover, Restore Our Future had no single executive in charge. It was run by a trio of consultants that included GOP election lawyer Charles Spies, its treasurer. His firm, Clark Hill, took in $746,425 from Restore Our Future, data from the CRP show. But Spies said that amount was paid to the firm as a whole, not to him individually.

On paper, Gerald McEntee, former president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, looks like the nation’s best-paid labor leader. In the first half of 2012, before he stepped down as AFSCME president to be replaced by Lee Saunders, McEtee pulled in $1 million, according to the annual report file by the union with the Labor Department. But that figure includes what amounts to severance pay of two weeks’ worth of salary per year over McEntee’s more than three decades with the union. His 2011 compensation was $394,871.

The incomplete salary disclosures pose “a very serious problem” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Executive salaries must be pieced together from reports filed to the Labor Department, the FEC and the IRS, all on different schedules and using different formats. That invites abuse from political players, he warned, particularly since the money trail can be obscured by transfers between groups: “As long as we don’t have any disclosure of salaries, we’re just leaving the barn door wide open here.”

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