JULY 31, 2015
'Super PACs' Spent Millions Before Candidates Announced, Filings Show
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
Acting as shadow campaigns, the political committees backing the major presidential candidates supported them with tens of millions of dollars in chartered planes, luxury hotel suites, opposition research, high-priced lawyers and more, spending reports showed Friday.
Campaign disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission underscored just how far the candidates -- particularly Jeb Bush -- went in outsourcing many of their traditional campaign operations to "super PACs," which face much looser regulation.
The super PACs, which have dominated the fund-raising landscape so far in the 2016 campaign, reported that they had raised a total of at least $245 million so far this year, with individual donations of a million dollars or more to Mr. Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and others.
The reports show that the super PACs rushed to raise and spend a huge amount of money this spring in the months before many candidates formally declared they were running for president.
While the super PACs maintain that they complied with all fund-raising laws, watchdog groups denounced the massive spending detailed in the reports as evidence that many of the candidates were improperly circumventing limits on fund-raising in the run-up to the beginning of their official campaigns.
While donations to the candidates themselves are capped at $2,700, wealthy donors were able to give unlimited amounts to the super PACs supporting them -- with a top contribution of $11 million given to Mr. Cruz's committee by the hedge fund investor Robert Mercer.
"Today's revelations will just make voter cynicism about politics even worse," predicted David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, a Washington group that supports tougher campaign-finance and influence-peddling restrictions. "How will candidates convince voters they aren't beholden to $10 million donors?"
Page upon page of expense reports filed Friday by the political committees cataloged almost anything that a candidate might need to run a campaign -- from luxury hotel room rentals and catering to pricey advertising campaigns, website development and office supplies.
The super PAC supporting Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for instance, reported the donation of the use of a chartered jet valued at $70,000 from John A. Catsimatidis, the billionaire supermarket owner.
Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting Mrs. Clinton, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, accountants and political consultants like Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton friend and adviser.
Another committee backing Mr. Cruz went big on fund-raising phone calls, spending $60,000 in a span of a few weeks to ring potential donors for more money, the filings showed.
A committee backing Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, paid more than $28,000 for film shoots. One supporting Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky bought $45,500 in advertising time. An organization behind Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina spent almost $33,000 on lawyers. And the super PAC supporting Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey paid $28,402 to buy mailing lists.
But no one came close to raising or spending as much money as the two groups supporting Mr. Bush, known as Right to Rise USA and Right to Rise PAC.
Mr. Bush's political groups reported raising more than $108 million -- and spending more than $10 million, often on lavish, catered fund-raisers that Mr. Bush personally attended to meet and have photos taken with wealthy donors.
The Bush committees' tabs included a $28,000 catering bill at a Chicago event; tens of thousands of dollars in rentals and rooms at high-end hotels like the St. Regis in Houston and the Four Seasons in Palo Alto, Calif.; and valet service at events in San Francisco, Washington and Coral Gables, Fla.
Printing and mailing campaign literature alone totaled about $809,000 -- just one measure of Mr. Bush's efforts to overwhelm his opponents with his financial dominance.
Mr. Bush's committees were so flush with cash, in fact, that they could even afford to give back about $170,000 in donations from 18 big donors. The committees refused to say why they were returned.
Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group in Washington, said the campaign filings "confirm what I suspected about Jeb Bush -- that he used his super PACs to raise and spend massive amounts of money in violation of the law." His group has brought complaints against Mr. Bush and other candidates accusing them of violating fund-raising limits.
But Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the Right to Rise committees, scoffed at the allegation.
"Right to Rise takes a conservative approach to F.E.C. rules, and we are in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations," Mr. Lindsay said in an email.
"Our expenditures for six months of Right to Rise fund-raising costs and fund-raising events are minimal given the scale of our support from donors who have been drawn to Governor Bush's conservative record of reform," he said.
Just hours after Mr. Bush's two super PACs filed their financial reports, the campaign itself put out another fund-raising plea to backers.
"We hate to be blunt," read an email from the campaign, "but there are only 6 hours left until our critical July fund-raising deadline. We set an ambitious goal of $150,000 in five days, and we are only $2,942 away from hitting it. Please, Friend, be the one who helps up blow past this goal with a gift of $100, $50 or even $25 right now."
Graphic: Million-Dollar Donors in the 2016 Presidential Race