Shining light on Clinton ‘dark money’
A look at specific contributions to the super PACs supporting Clinton shows just how difficult it can be to unravel who is really writing the checks.
For example, federal records show that on June 29, super PAC Priorities USA Action received $1 million from an outfit called Fair Share Action.
Fair Share Action, too, is a super PAC — a liberal one that says it works to “elect public officials who stick up for working families.” The big check followed its earlier $5,000 contribution to Ready for Hillary PAC.
So who funds Fair Share Action? During 2015, a pair of “social welfare” nonprofits alone bankrolled it: Environment America Inc. ($800,000) and Fair Share Inc. ($300,000).
But neither Environment America Inc. nor Fair Share Inc. is required to comprehensively or publicly reveal its donors, because as “social welfare” groups that can’t primarily focus on electoral politics, federal law says they don’t have to. (Several other environmentally minded nonprofits give to Environment America Inc., federal tax filings indicate.)
Wendy Wendlandt, acting director for both Fair Share Action and Fair Share Inc., declined to volunteer the names or contribution amounts of Fair Share Inc.’s donors.
Wendlandt did say that both Fair Share Inc. and Environment America Inc. are “largely funded by individual members” with money “raised in teeny, tiny contributions.” Neither group, she continued, accepts for-profit corporate contributions.
“It’s important to distinguish between grassroots groups like Environment America and Fair Share which are truly organized with a social mission and those organizations which are specifically set up to shield political donors,” Wendlandt said, adding that Fair Share Inc. supports proposed laws requiring “social welfare” nonprofits to disclose donors who fund electioneering efforts. “However, until such laws are enacted, we do not turn away any donation which is legal and motivated by a desire to further the public interest.”
Barasky of Priorities USA Action declined to comment on Fair Share Action’s contribution.
Priorities USA Action also received $200,000 last year from the corporate treasury of Suffolk Construction Company Inc., a Boston-based firm with a portfolio filled with dozens of completed private sector and public sector projects, including facilities operated by the federal government.
Government contracting records indicate that the federal government has awarded Suffolk Construction more than $168.8 million worth of contracts since fiscal year 2008.
Officials at Suffolk Construction repeatedly declined to explain why the company contributed money to Priorities USA Action.
One clue: Federal records show Suffolk Construction’s John Fish is a major political bankroller, having personally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to federal candidates and committees over the years. Fish, who the Federal Reserve named chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, did not return requests for comment.
Most of Fish’s contributions went to Democrats, including Clinton’s presidential campaign. But Fish also last year contributed to the presidential campaigns of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J.
Priorities USA Action’s Barasky again declined to comment.
Other pro-Clinton super PAC contributions listed in federal disclosure documents are more modest but similarly opaque, their true sources hidden within a tangle of corporate acronyms and aliases.
Take a $5,000 contribution last year to Ready for Hillary PAC from “RMS” in Cleveland, Ohio.
The hunt for answers begins at R.M.S. Aquaculture — “Cleveland’s aquarium superstore!” But a man answering the phone there expressed confusion about the contribution and insisted the company had never donated to Ready for Hillary PAC, or any super PAC.
There is another RMS in Cleveland, state incorporation documents indicate. This RMS’ address tracks to a building where real estate developer Forest City also has offices.
Turns out there’s a connection between the two companies: Forest City spokesman Jeff Linton confirmed that RMS more or less functions as a “family office” for the Ratner family, which founded Forest City.
Several family members are frequent political contributors, federal records show, donating to both Democrats and Republicans. Albert Ratner, for example, personally has given nearly $120,000 to New Day for America, a super PAC supporting GOP presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He’s also donated $2,700 to the campaign committees of both Kasich and Clinton.
Ready for Hillary PAC spokeswoman Nicole Titus declined to discuss specific contributions received by the PAC, but noted that it accepted donations from more than 130,000 contributors and built “an early network of supporters who were ready to begin working” the moment Clinton announced her candidacy.
Ready for Hillary PAC also received $5,000 in 2014 from “PCCC, LLC” of Brentwood, Tennessee.
The Price Cutter Charity Championship, a professional golf tournament in Missouri, is on the same Web.com Tour schedule as a tournament in Brentwood, Tennessee. But tournament director Jerald Andrews says it “has no connection whatsoever” to the pro-Clinton super PAC.
Is PCCC LLC an entity controlled by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political group that pushes for liberal reforms and is aligned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.? No, says co-founder Adam Green — it’s not his PCCC that’s behind the money.
There is a Dallas-based private equity company called Pharos Capital Group LLC.
The firm also has an office in Brentwood, Tennessee. Its address matches the one Ready for Hillary PAC listed for PCCC LLC. For two weeks, Pharos Capital Group LLC officials declined Center for Public Integrity requests to explain whether Pharos Capital Group LLC and PCCC LLC are one and the same.
An answer finally came in late March when Pharos Capital Group LLC Vice President Ryan Shelton acknowledged that PCCC LLC is a “related entity” controlled by Pharos Capital Group LLC Managing Partner Kneeland Youngblood, a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates, including Clinton.
The mini-mysteries continue with a $5,000 contribution Ready for Hillary PAC received in June 2014, from Victoria Pre-Owned Autos Inc. in Bergen County, New Jersey — the same day that a dozen other companies gave the super PAC money, federal records indicate. Donations ranged from $250 to $12,500.
Lucky Ugulu, one of Victoria Pre-Owned Autos Inc.’s partners, confirmed his company donated to the super PAC. He said he made it at the behest of his local Democratic party.
New Jersey Democratic State Committee spokesman Matt Farrauto said his committee doesn’t endorse candidates in primaries and made no such ask. Lou Stellato, chairman of the Democratic Committee of Bergen County, has endorsed Clinton, and did not return a message seeking comment.
As for Ugulu, he’d like his money back: business isn’t strong, and since making his contribution, he’s barely heard a peep from either the Clinton campaign or pro-Clinton super PACs. Ugulu says he’s now planning to skip November’s presidential vote.
“It’s just a system that asks for money and gives you nothing in return,” he said.
That’s not always the case, though.
In April, Ready for Hillary PAC earned $105,000 from MOKO Social Media Ltd., a for-profit firm with offices in Sydney, Australia; Alexandria, Virginia; and New York City.
What did MOKO get for its money?
Ready for Hillary PAC granted MOKO the right to email the PAC’s millions of supporters with up to eight commercial messages, according to a contract obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
The messages would come from Blue Nation Review, a popular and unabashedly lefty news site that MOKO then owned. Ready for Hillary PAC also agreed to “retweet on Twitter and post on Twitter mutually agreed upon content produced by MOKO-owned property Blue Nation Review.”
The idea, MOKO founder Ian Rodwell told the Center for Public Integrity, was to promote content that was “relevant to the same audience.”
But MOKO only sent one email message, said Titus of Ready for Hillary PAC. And in November, MOKO sold most of its stake in Blue Nation Review to a new company called True Blue Media LLC.
Who owns True Blue Media LLC?
Clinton consigliere David Brock.
In acquiring Blue Nation Review, Brock now owned both a media property and remaining access to Ready for Hillary PAC’s millions of supporters.
He tapped Peter Daou, a former Clinton campaign operative, as Blue Nation Review’s editor.
Daou replaced Jimmy Williams, Blue Nation Review’s founder, an avowed Democrat and a Clinton supporter who nevertheless wasn’t willing to play editorial favorites with Clinton over Sanders.
In an interview, Williams said Brock made it clear to him that Blue Nation Review would not report on Democrats neutrally.
“It appears Blue Nation Review’s goal is to destroy Bernie Sanders, and I’m not willing to be a part of that,” said Williams, who now hosts the DecodeDC podcast. “I believe in the Reagan rule — do not speak ill of your party members — applied to Democrats.”
Indeed, Blue Nation Review now routinely publishes pieces slamming Sanders or lauding Clinton. Recent stories feature headlines such as “Integrity: Rachel Maddow Speaks Hard Truths About Bernie’s Campaign,” “Welcome: Republicans for Hillary” and “Is Bernie in Denial About Attacks on Hillary?”
Brock declined to address his purchase of Blue Nation Media. Daou did not respond to requests for comment.