Designed primarily to provide funding for other candidates running for office, leadership PACs are an important instrument for Washington politicos seeking leadership positions to raise money and build connections.
But for some, only a fraction of the money raised goes to support other candidates. In fact, many are instead funneling leadership PAC cash to closely-linked firms and nonprofits.
Ahead of 2020, leadership PACs have combined to spend $56.6 million by far this year, but less than 30 percent of that money — totaling $16.5 million — went to other federal candidates’ campaigns.
Many are delivering large payments to close allies or even paying for lavish lifestyles. This kind of spending is legal under current law, which does not subject PACs or super PACs to personal use provisions. Some politicians, even after retiring from their posts, remain influential players through their leadership PACs.
Closely Tied Entities Get Donor Dollars
Vice President Mike Pence’s Great America Committee spent $809,511 through Oct. 31. Instead of bankrolling other Republican candidates, more than half of the PAC’s spending went to fundraising and consulting. The PAC made only one contribution — $2,500 to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who sits on both committees holding the impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump.
The PAC spent heavily with firms closely tied to the Trump administration. The committee spent $103,806 at Trump-owned properties through August. It also paid $129,795 to MO Strategies, a consulting company run by Pence’s senior political advisor Marty Obst. Another of the committee’s top consultants, Maple Creek Consulting, received $100,000 from the committee. The firm is registered by Samantha Menh, who’s now working with Obst on vice presidential operations on the Trump reelection campaign.
Pence’s leadership PAC is hardly the only committee to funnel money to firms he’s close to. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Supporting Electing American Leaders PAC spent $912,536 on fundraising mailings and calls, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to firms related to Kimberly Bellissimo, a conservative activist with close links to Zinke. The PAC also spent $59,000 — only a fraction of its $1.5 million revenue — running digital ads supporting Republican candidates in congressional races in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Some prominent politicians directed money to their own nonprofits. America’s Future Fund PAC, a now-terminated leadership PAC affiliated with former Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), took what was left in its bank and donated $82,245 to Ohio’s Future Foundation, a 501(c)(4) group chaired by Renacci. Launched in January, the organization is focused on an array of policy issues in Ohio, including vocational education, the state’s municipal tax system and ending Medicaid expansion.
Likewise, former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) leadership PAC, Prosperity Action, gave generously to Ryan’s nonprofit, American Idea Foundation. Launched in October as a project to fight poverty, the nonprofit received $1.6 million from Prosperity Action and $5.6 million from Ryan’s congressional campaign committee after his retirement last year. Kevin Seifert, who worked as Ryan’s senior advisor, now advises the nonprofit. At Ease Advisors, where Seifert serves as the chief operating officer, also received $98,086 from Prosperity Action.
Gone But Not Out
Like Prosperity Action, some leadership PACs controlled by those who retired from office remain in the fundraising game, raking in millions of cash and spending handsomely to maintain the cash flow.
Elbert Guillory’s America, affiliated with former Louisiana state Sen. Elbert Guillory, is still raking in millions years after his term ended in 2016. Spending big on mailing services, the PAC pulled in more than 80 percent of its revenue from donors who each gave $200 or less. Guillory is among the PAC’s top recipients, receiving a total of $64,698.
By comparison, the PAC only contributed $19,000 to a handful of Republican Congress members. However, it spent $325,435 sending mailers that support Trump’s reelection campaign, Texas Republican congressional candidate Wesley Hunt and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who announced that he would not seek reelection in 2020.
Similarly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Huck PAC raised $885,023 during the first half of this year and put $634,253 into fundraising efforts, sending out mailers and making phone calls to haul in more cash. It gave $135,000 to Trump and GOP Congress members including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
Some are also using their leadership PACs to fund expensive hotel stays, upscale dinners and more.
Former Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) Invest in a Strong & Secure America paid California luxury resort Montage Laguna Beach $55,195 — a third of what was left in its bank — after Issa retired last year.
Former Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) HellerHighWater PAC also paid for frequent stays at the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino, which cost the committee a total of $43,797. It also purchased $45,586 worth of “office supplies” from two addresses registered in strip malls in Nevada, records show.
Permitted by Law
Those former Congress members are not alone. Many current members of Congress are also using leadership PAC cash to pay for expenses that their campaign accounts might stay away from, including luxury resorts and private flights.
For campaign committees, that spending is legal as long as candidates make the argument that the money is used for fundraising. The Federal Election Commission prohibits campaigns from covering personal expenses, but the restriction does not apply to PACs or super PACs.
AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, controlled by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), raised $1.7 million during the 2020 cycle, and spent a total of $121,442 for events at the Dorado Beach Resort, a luxury resort in Puerto Rico. Demonstrating its fundraising ability, the committee contributed $552,500 to a cadre of Democratic congressional candidates.
Common Ground PAC, affiliated with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), gave $134,000 to Democrats running for Congress in 2020 and contributed $105,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Apart from direct contributions, however, the PAC also paid $48,838 for catering and events at the Salamander Resort and Spa, a five-star hotel in Virginia.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.)’s Sensible American Solutions Supporting Everyone is $75,659 in debt, yet still spent twice as much as it raised this year. The committee spent almost $90,000 buying a campaign RV and more than $90,000 on airfare.
Rep. Hal Rogers’ (R-Ky.) Help America’s Leaders paid $18,000 to his wife, Cynthia Rogers, for “event planning.” The committee spent most of its cash on fundraising events, paying $10,124 to Lexington racetrack Keeneland Hospitality for event, tickets, catering and donor gifts. It spent a total of $12,882 on food and beverages, $4,437 on hotel stays at luxury hotel chains in Kentucky and Florida and $640 on cigars. The PAC declined to comment on any of the spending.
Researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to the report.