Two $25,000 donations during the final days of a hotly contested Illinois primary are raising more questions about whether super PACs — the political committees that have seen a flood of money from millionaires and billionaires — are being used to circumvent campaign contribution limits.
Back in March, sophomore Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) wanted to help his friend and fellow Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger survive a rare incumbent-on-incumbent primary by sending some money his way.
Many members of Congress have “leadership PACs” set up for just this purpose — they direct funds from the PACs to their fellow representatives in hopes of earning support for senior leadership positions.
Thanks to redistricting, Kinzinger, rather than face an easy primary, found himself facing 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo.
Schock’s leadership PAC gave Kinzinger’s campaign $5,000 for the primary fight — the maximum allowed contribution. But Schock also managed to direct 10 times that much toward efforts aiding his buddy with help from the super PAC, earning the ire of campaign finance watchdogs.
The super PAC, Campaign for Primary Accountability, like other organizations made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, can accept unlimited funds and use the money to attack candidates in elections.
The nonpartisan, Texas-based organization — which has made a name for itself going after incumbents in both parties — had been running negative ads about Manzullo. According to a story in Roll Call, Schock asked the group if he could designate a donation to be used to help Kinzinger.
They were happy to accommodate.
“I asked if I could specify a donation to them,” Schock told Roll Call about his conversation with the Campaign for Primary Accountability. “And they said I could.”
Next, Schock approached House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who had also backed Kinzinger. He asked if Cantor would “match” $25,000 that Schock would provide for the super PAC’s television assault, ads that likely contributed to Kinzinger’s 8 percentage point victory over Manzullo.
According to Roll Call, Cantor’s contribution would be paired with $25,000 from Schock’s own leadership PAC.
Now here’s the strange part: the Federal Election Commission says that lawmakers and candidates are only allowed to solicit up to $5,000 on behalf of super PACs. That’s the same amount they can solicit for traditional PACs, including their own leadership PACs.
If Schock had only asked Cantor to cough up $5,000, he would have been fine. But his solicitation drew a complaint from the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, election watchdogs in Washington.
And Schock may be facing an additional complaint. As of the end of March, his leadership PAC never gave any money to the super PAC, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of documents filed with the FEC.
Instead, the $25,000 from Cantor — which came via his own leadership PAC — appears to have been matched by $25,000 from the 18th District Republican Central Committee, the local political party committee in Schock’s home district, which reported the expense as “committee advertising.”
Both gifts were earmarked for the Illinois race, according to documents the super PAC filed with the FEC.
Schock, dubbed the "Ripped Representative" by Men's Health, displayed his washboard abs on the magazine's cover last year.
Leadership PACs — like individuals, unions or corporations — are permitted to give unlimited sums to independent expenditure-only committees, also known as super PACs.
But they can only give $5,000 directly to a campaign.
Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, said that Schock may now be at fault for making two solicitations for too much money rather than one.
Paul Kilgore, the treasurer of the 18th District Republican Central Committee, said that Schock has “no formal affiliation” with the group, although Schock’s joint fund-raising committee, the Schock Victory Fund, has raised more than $132,000 for the group during the past 15 months, according to its filings with the FEC. That includes about $8,000 during the first quarter.
Asked about the complaint from the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, Tania Hoerr, Schock’s campaign director, said the campaign is “completely confident” that the FEC will determine that “no violation occurred.” But neither Hoerr nor Steve Dutton, Schock’s spokesman on Capitol Hill, responded to follow-up questions about Schock’s involvement with the 18th District Republican Central Committee’s contribution.
Meanwhile, several GOP county chairs in the 18th Congressional District told the Center for Public Integrity that they had not heard about the five-figure donation from the central committee to the super PAC.
Mike Bigger, the chairman of the 18th District Republican Central Committee — and an ally of Schock — has the authority to make such decisions.
“I don’t think any of the county chairmen knew the 18th District was getting involved,” said Pike County Republican Party Chair John Birch, whom Bigger, with Schock’s backing, ousted from the role of central committeeman in 2010. “[Bigger] has got the power and he’s got the right to do it without asking.”
Bigger did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Ryan said if the FEC doesn’t take action against Schock for making an excessive solicitation, then the agency would be “green-lighting” candidates’ ability to ask for unlimited amounts of money for super PACs that will do candidates’ “dirty work.”
While Schock only asked for five times the legal limit, Ryan continued, what’s to stop another politician from asking for $500,000 or $1 million for a super PAC from politicians who have large reserves in either their campaign funds or leadership PACs?
“That’s a threat of corruption that concerns the Campaign Legal Center,” Ryan said.
Ryan further noted that Schock could be fined up to the amount that was excessively solicited — or up to double that amount if the FEC found that a “knowing and willful violation” had transpired.
“Candidates should have no involvement in super PAC fundraising,” Ryan said. “If Rep. Schock gets away with this, it would make a bad situation worse.”