Super PACs Line Their Coffers for 2012 Battle: Albert R. Hunt

Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Mike Toomey, Bill Burton and Edward Conard: Each of these men is a close ally of one of the would-be next presidents of the United States. All three insist they have no involvement in their close associates’ campaigns.

That’s because they’re helping direct so-called Super PACs -- Burton for President Barack Obama, Toomey for Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Conard for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. This role enables them to raise virtually unlimited funds from individuals, corporations and labor unions as long as they remain “independent” of the campaigns.

What these Super PACs do is to effectively lift the campaign-contribution limits, currently at $2,500 per individual, and allow wealthy interests and individuals to make the huge contributions that were the trademark of the era that ended with the Watergate scandal.

Political-action committees have long existed in U.S. politics. In the past, however, they couldn’t accept any corporate or labor-union contributions and individuals couldn’t give more than the legal limit. Two Supreme Court rulings and lax enforcement by the Federal Elections Commission led to the creation of the Super PACs, which, for the first time, can take unlimited money from special interests and individuals and use those funds on behalf of a specific presidential candidate.

Independence Travesty

They are supposed to be independent of the campaigns. It’s now clear that this separation is a travesty on both sides, making these entities and the big money the wave of the future.

“The idea that these Super PACs are independent from the candidates they’re supporting is absurd,” says Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based group that advocates campaign-finance reform and who has brought legal action against these new fundraisers. “They are simply a mechanism for massive circumvention of the contribution limits that are supposed to apply to federal campaigns.”

Just look at the central players. Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff, is now considered the leading business lobbyist in Texas. He plays a major role in Make Us Great Again, one of several independent efforts on behalf of Perry. He owns an island with David Carney, Perry’s campaign manager, and maintains close relations with the governor.

Burton, who directs Priorities USA Action, was Obama’s deputy press secretary during the 2008 campaign and served in a similar post during the first two years of his presidency.

Romney Partner

Conard was a fellow managing partner with Romney of the private-equity firm Bain Capital and keeps a close association with the Republican presidential candidate. This year, he set up a shell company and secretly funneled a $1 million contribution to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC that supports Romney’s White House run. He was forced to disclose his identity after questions in the media about the origins of that large anonymous donation.

Conard’s shell company, which only existed for four months, was set up to evade the law that requires Super PACS to identify donors but sets no limits on donations.

Restore Our Future has received major funding from people such as the hedge-fund tycoon John Paulson, who has given more than $1 million; under Federal Elections Commission rules, Romney was able to attend a event held by this “independent” entity as long as he didn’t directly solicit funds for it.

This Super PAC is led by several of Romney’s 2008 campaign advisers, who are intimately acquainted with some of the aides who are running the 2012 effort.

Obama Aide

Burton’s partner is Sean Sweeney, who was a White House political aide in the Obama administration before joining this “independent” group.

Coordination doesn’t have to be direct or official to be strategic and helpful. David Plouffe, the top Obama political aide, and other operatives have trained their fire recently on Romney; so has Priorities USA Action.

It’s a safe assumption that if there’s a Romney-Obama matchup in the general election, Restore Our Future and Priorities USA Action will be on the airwaves in the battleground states of Colorado, Virginia and Ohio, and not in California or Texas.

The most ambitious “independent” venture may be the one supporting Perry. Even before he announced his presidential campaign, candidates from half a dozen such groups were assembling. Make Us Great Again reportedly had gotten word out and most of the focus now seems to be coalescing around that group.

Perry’s Backers

This Super PAC has two invaluable assets: It enables rich Texans who’ve long backed Perry to make big contributions, and it eliminates any competitive disadvantage the late-starting candidate might have in taking on rivals who have a larger pool of smaller contributors. If past experience is any guide, look for Make Us Great Again to attack opponents, starting with Romney.

If these Big Money-funded groups end up playing a vital role in the presidential race, it’s a certainty, as Wertheimer frets, that they will surface in most congressional elections the next time. By then, all the checks and balances instituted after Watergate will have been rolled back.

Postscript: With all this unseemly influence-peddling it’s no wonder that lobbyists, public-relations operatives and political appointees are held in low regard.

Howard Paster, who passed away at 66 on Aug. 10, reminds us that these can be noble vocations. He was a lobbyist for the United Auto Workers, later chairman of Hill and Knowlton public relations firm and a top White House aide in the Clinton administration.

Whether lobbying in his early days for the UAW, or later for industry, or helping President Bill Clinton secure passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Paster always was knowledgeable, honorable and admired by allies and opponents alike.

“He was direct and tough but always positive and genuine,” says Marsha Hale, who worked with him in the White House.

Paster’s career is a reminder that in Washington, even when it’s riddled with sleazy influence peddling, there are still many honest practitioners who work to make public policy better.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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