When an email from a foreign prince hits your inbox, you know it is a scam and that you won’t receive millions of dollars by sending his royal highness a money order. When you receive an email promising you vast sums for working at home, you quickly hit delete. But, when you receive a “political” email, tailor-made to address issues or causes you care about, do you, like most people, presume that it is real?
Most political emails are sent by entities campaigning for or against an issue or candidate. But, with increasing frequency, some political emails you receive are scams, and little or none of the money raised is going toward the cause or candidate. Shockingly, the body that regulates campaign finance, the Federal Election Commission, can’t stop these scam artists.
The language in the emails is frighteningly urgent. A great deal of capitalization is used to convey the immediate need for your contribution — STOP John Smith from TAKING AWAY your RIGHTS, DRAFT Mary Jones to PRESERVE your FREEDOM or Rep. Susan Doe NEEDS your IMMEDIATE HELP or she will LOSE her SEAT.
Here’s how the scam works: An urgent email, which often includes the name and photo of a well-known politician, asks that you “sign a petition” and then makes a request for a small contribution. Using the money raised through the urgent email plea, a scam political action committee pays a consulting firm — owned by the scam PAC’s treasurer — that then uses the funds to generate more emails and letters and raise more money.
Because of the way the requests are portrayed, it is assumed the money raised will go to help elect or defeat that candidate. In reality, the money raised largely gets funneled into the pockets of the political operatives who set up these organizations.
The FEC, the body I chair, should be on top of this — ferreting out bad actors and protecting donors — but it isn’t. The FEC’s inaction, though, isn’t because of the well-publicized deadlocks at the commission. Surprisingly, the law doesn’t give the FEC the tools or the authority needed to address scam PAC activity.
For example, in 2012, the FEC received a complaint that involved an alleged scam PAC — brought by former Rep. Allen B. West. West’s campaign alleged a group called Republican Majority Campaign sent out solicitations stating, among other things, “[t]his has been a tough year for Congressman West. We need your help — and we need it NOW!” The plea also urged for the recipient to “[j]oin us today, and please give Allen West your swift and generous supports (sic), it’s not a moment too soon.”
West’s campaign said the solicitations were not authorized by nor affiliated with West, but “blur the line between RMC and West’s campaign committee.”
West’s complaint noted that virtually all of the more than $1 million in contributions received by RMC were spent on “operating expenditures” and said, “We can find no evidence that [RMC] has spent any money on actual, non-fundraising public communications since sometime in 2008.” Due to the deficit in the law, the FEC had no choice but to dismiss this complaint.
When donors give money in response to fundraising appeals, the donations should be spent to benefit the intended recipients. Congress should enact legislation that would give the FEC the ability to protect PAC donors. The necessary “donor protection” legislation could take a variety of forms, including, forbidding organizations from spending too little on genuine political activity or prohibiting the leaders of these organizations from funneling contributions into their own pockets.
Such proposals should have bipartisan support. The FEC has, for many years, unanimously approved recommendations to Congress that would have taken small steps toward addressing scam PAC activity. After all, a role of the FEC is to protect consumers, the American voting public, from those who don’t use money contributed to campaigns for proper purposes. This is why the FEC fines committees that use campaign funds for personal uses, such as paying the candidate’s mortgage or going on vacation.
Right now, much of alleged scam PAC activity takes advantage of an active group of disaffected small donors. Unless Congress takes action and gives the FEC the tools to regulate scam PACS, we can expect this problem to grow. Stopping scam PACS is an issue everyone can agree on. No one, except for profiteers who take advantage of civically engaged citizens, wins if these scam PACs are allowed to operate unfettered.
Ann M. Ravel is the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission. Prior to her appointment, she was chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.