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Party of one

Special committees allow prominent lawmakers to parcel out campaign cash

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In the 2002 election cycle, 16 leadership committees—essentially political action committees run by elected politicians—in five states raised and spent more than $17 million.

State legislative leaders—senate and house majority and minority leaders, senate presidents and house speakers—are in high-profile positions and use these types of committees for several purposes, including helping candidates within their parties in key races throughout the state.

As part of the Party Lines study of state political parties, the Center for Public Integrity examined the role of leadership committees in a handful of states: Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Virginia and New York. To help identify leadership committees in these states, the Center contacted legislative leaders, state money-in-politics research organizations and political journalists. To compile the financial data, the Center used the online disclosure databases provided by state campaign finance regulatory agencies.

Because contribution limits and disclosure rules vary greatly from state to state, it is difficult to track money raised and spent by committees connected to legislative leaders. In many cases, it's hard even to determine which lawmakers operate such committees. Often, leadership PACs have generic or ambiguous names shielding them from affiliated lawmakers, such as "Committee for a Responsible Government" or "New Majority Project."

In Florida, legislators have formed leadership committees and have used a loophole in state law to solicit contributions of up to $50,000 from corporations and lobbyists without having to reveal contributor identities on campaign finance disclosure filings. In New Jersey, on the other hand, leadership committees are defined by statute and connected to the same positions in each party, independent of the lawmaker who holds the office.

Still, leadership committees do share one thing in common: They are an attractive option for lawmakers who see the correlation between money and power.

Leadership committees "work as kind of corollaries to the leaders' own [campaign] funds, and money flows back and forth and in and out," said Cindy Canary, director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "Leadership funds are clearly there to go to the targeted races. Seventy to 80 percent of the money [is for those races]."

The federal precedent

On the federal level, members of Congress have long used leadership PACs as a means of increasing their clout on Capitol Hill. Having a political action committee in addition to their individual campaign committees allows lawmakers to increase their prominence by raising additional money from corporations, individuals and interest groups and then doling it out as they choose to assist their party's candidates.

For example, House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, raises money for his own reelection through the Tom Delay Congressional Committee. He also maintains the Americans for a Republican Majority leadership committee, or ARMPAC.

Delay raised $1.35 million and spent $1.27 million on his race during the 2001-2002 election cycle, through the Tom Delay Congressional Committee, and also raised $3.3 million and spent $3.4 million in additional federal money through his leadership committee, ARMPAC. That money was used to influence elections across the country— ARMPAC's FEC filings disclose transfers to the campaign accounts of a panoply of Republican candidates—and all of it at his discretion. For the dozens of federal lawmakers with their own leadership committees, the rules are the same: every one must report details of his leadership PAC to the Federal Election Commission, which oversees a single set of campaign finance laws. In December 2003, the FEC formally recognized and approved the practice allowing one officeholder to maintain two fundraising committees.

At the state level the leadership PAC landscape is not as detailed.

Florida

For years, aides to top state legislators in Florida and in some cases legislators themselves have established so-called committees of continuing existence. Such committees are required to report contributions received—but if the money is tagged as membership dues, the committee is not required to identify the donors. Lawmakers used this loophole to solicit large donations of as much as $50,000 at a time.

Between 1999 and late 2003, these committees raised more than $2.8 million statewide. Of that, some $1.27 million came from anonymous donors paying membership dues, according to The Ledger newspaper of Lakeland, Fla.

Several members of the legislature's leadership raised hundreds of thousands of dollars using the membership dues loophole. Florida Senate President Jim King's Floridians for a More Informed Electorate raised nearly $200,000 in 2001-2002, and spent more than $130,000 on key Florida races. House Majority Whip Gaston Cantens, through his committee, Floridians for Effective Government, raised $263,200 and spent nearly as much, $259,613, during the same period. A recent public outcry may lead to a change in the law. In February, Gov. Jeb Bush, along with Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, the incoming Florida Senate president and House speaker, respectively, announced a joint effort to close the membership dues loophole. Florida newspapers ran editorials supporting the initiative, which is expected to come under review during the current legislative session that began on March 2.

When Bush announced his proposal, many of the state's legislators in leadership positions voluntarily disclosed their donors. At least one legislator refused, however. Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, told The Ledger, "I will do everything in my power to comply fully with the law. … When they change the law, I'll comply with that." Brown refused to identify the donors behind some $45,800 in contributions to his Committee for Florida's Economic Future in the past two quarters of activity. Of that amount, there are three individual contributions of $10,000, two of $5,000, two each of $1,500 and $1,000 and one of $800, all listed as "member dues" ($10,000 will make the contributor a patron member of FEF, $5,000 a sponsor, and lesser amounts an associate.)

FEF's filings indicate that during the same period, around $8,000 was paid to several Republican lawmakers throughout the state in $500 increments, mostly for campaign advertising and operations and related activities.

Rep. Brown sits on appropriations, finance and tax, health care, ethics and elections, and labor committees. He is chair of the Insurance Regulation subcommittee, chair of the Select Committee on Florida's Economic Future, and vice chair of the Select Committee on Worker's Compensation.

Florida Leadership PAC Totals

Floridians for Conservative Leadership (House Majority Leader Marco Rubio): 
Raised $13,100; Spent $11,076. 
Floridians for Effective Government (House Majority Whip Gaston Cantens): 
Raised $263,200; Spent $259,613. 
Committee for Responsible Government (House Speaker Johnnie Byrd): 
Raised $51,500; Spent $53,816. 
Floridians for a More Informed Electorate (Senate President Jim King): 
Raised $194,379; Spent $133,487.

New Jersey

Unlike most states, New Jersey includes provisions for legislative leadership committees in its state Election Law Enforcement Commission regulations. State law dictates that the President of the Senate, the Senate Minority Leader, and the Speaker and Minority Leader of the General Assembly may each establish a legislative leadership committee to receive contributions and influence state elections. The regulations also establish contribution limits for these committees: individuals and corporations, as well as other political committees, candidates or associations, may make contributions of up to $25,000 a year. There are no limits on the amount of money that a legislative leadership committee can transfer to a candidate or political committee, or the state political party. (There is likewise no limit on the amount of money a state party can transfer to the leadership committees.)

For the period 2001-2002, five New Jersey legislative leadership committees collectively raised nearly $15.4 million and spent $14.7 million.

New Jersey Leadership PAC Totals

Senate Republican Majority: 
Raised $4,591,234, Spent $4,859,965 
Doria Democratic Leadership Fund (former Assembly Speaker Joe Doria): 
Raised $1,989,285, Spent $1,203,735 
New Democratic Assembly Leadership PAC: 
Raised $932,750, Spent $330,742 
Senate Democratic Majority 2001: 
Raised $5,367,497, Spent $5,815,397 
Assembly Republican Majority: 
Raised $2,471,684, Spent $2,511,270

Illinois

In examining leadership committees in Illinois, the Center found that the state's lack of any contribution limits to campaign committees all but eliminated the need for multiple fundraising vehicles. Thus, members of the party leadership structures do not make use of leadership PACs; rather, they take advantage of the lack of limits within the party committees themselves.

During 2001 and 2002, DPI—the Illinois Democratic state committee—raised nearly $10 million, which was dispersed to help the party's candidates statewide under the supervision of Michael J. Madigan, DPI's chairman. Madigan also happens to be the Illinois House Speaker; holding both positions simultaneously gives him unparalleled financial power with the party.

The state's top Republican lawmakers also closely monitor the funds flowing out of the party's caucus committees. The treasurer of the House Republican Organization also serves as the chief of staff to the House Minority Leader, Tom Cross; the committee's chairman, Angelo Saviano, is also an Assemblyman. The Senate Minority Leader, Frank C. Watson, chairs the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee. Combined, these two caucus committees raised nearly $5 million and spent more than $6 million.

By establishing direct ties to the state party and caucus committees with their ability to solicit unlimited contributions, as Madigan and Cross have, the state's top lawmakers have ensured that their names are synonymous with financial power—the ultimate goal of lawmakers in other states who have established leadership committees.

That said, some top-ranking legislators still maintain separate leadership committees. House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie chairs the Majority Leaders Fund, which raised $171,800 during the 2001-2002 election cycle. The Hanover Organization of Republicans, connected to Senate Assistant Minority Leader Steven J. Rauschenberger, raised $26,549 and spent $17,224.

Illinois Leadership PAC Totals

Majority Leader's Fund (Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie): 
Raised $171,800; Spent $122,030. 
Hanover Organization of Republicans (Senate Assistant Minority Leader Steven J. Rauschenberger): 
Raised $26,549; Spent $17,224.

Virginia

In Virginia, which places no limits on contributions to PACs, the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general have all established leadership committees. In fact, leadership committees have become so common that freshman members of the Senate and General Assembly have formed them, sometimes in small groups, even when they have not attained any positions within their party ranks beyond their seat in the legislature.

The Virginia Public Access Project, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, provides information on its Web site (www.vpap.org) on all of the state's leadership committees, and currently tracks detailed campaign finance information for 24 committees, some of which were formed within the past year. VPAP posts the name of the legislator who formed the committee and its purpose (usually to recruit new candidates and protect incumbents within the party). Virginia House of Delegates Democratic Caucus chair Creigh Deeds established the Rough Mountain Leadership PAC during the 2001 elections and raised $61,962. In January of 2002, Del. Franklin P. Hall became Minority Leader and established his own committee, the New Leadership Virginia Fund. New Leadership raised more than $180,000 in the following year.

Rough Mountain is still an active committee and continues to raise money to help Democratic candidates, though Deeds is now a Virginia state senator and no longer in a leadership position. By attaching themselves to committees that they can carry through the duration of their political careers regardless of their positions, lawmakers in Virginia can provide themselves with a lasting source of additional funds. Were it not for resources such as VPAP, the transactions of these committees would be difficult to track across multiple election cycles.

In 1999, the GOP became the majority party in the House of Delegates and H. Morgan Griffith formed the Leadership PAC in his successful bid to become Majority Leader. For 2001 and 2002, Leadership PAC raised $54,762 and spent $83,910.

Virginia Leadership PAC Totals

Leadership PAC (House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith): 
Raised $54,762; Spent $83,910. (2001-2002) 
New Leadership Virginia Fund (House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall): 
Raised $180,110; Spent $89,703. (2002) 
Rough Mountain Leadership PAC (Sen. Creigh Deeds): 
Raised $61,962; Spent $58,750. (2001)

New York

Leadership committees at the state level can have wide-reaching influence and serve as a destination for money from state party committees and state executive branches.

And no committee in New York is more powerful, prominent or influential than Speaker PAC, which is controlled by Shedon Silver, the Speaker of the State Assembly. Silver has held the top leadership post since 1994 and was first elected to the legislature in 1976.

During the last election cycle, Speaker PAC raised $413,600 and spent $168,686, thereby helping to elect New York Democrats including Assembly members Philip Ramos and Joan Millman. Several large expenditures also covered the cost of parties and social functions.

Speaker PAC's donors include Donald Trump, Delta Airlines, and law firm Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP.

Of course, Republican leaderships PACs are no slouches in fund-raising and spending either. The Empire State Leadership PAC raised $448,288 and spent $162,908. Some of that money was transferred to the Republican state party committee, as well as the New York State Conservative Party. Other transfers went to Republican Gov. George Pataki's campaign committee and State Sen. Joe Bruno's campaign committee.

In addition, $160,000 was transferred to ESLPAC from the non-federal account of Together for Our Majority, the leadership committee of U.S. Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who also chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. Such transfers are no longer legal, now that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act prohibits federal lawmakers from controlling non-federal accounts.

Though New York State does not require PACs to identify their officers, with the exception of the treasurer, Gannett News Service identified Reynolds as the chairman of ESLPAC in 2002, and described the committee as a vehicle to help Gov. George Pataki and other state Republicans. Reynolds is a former New York State Assembly leader who established TOMPAC after one term as a Congressman. By keeping his state leadership committee, ESLPAC, functioning concurrently with TOMPAC, Reynolds has maneuvered himself into a position of significant financial influence that stretches across the border between state and federal government.

New York Leadership PAC Totals

Speaker PAC (Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver): 
Raised $413,600; Spent $168,686. 
Empire State Leadership PAC: 
Raised $448,288; Spent $162,908.