For those trying to secretly influence the election as the clock winds down, Oct. 20 was an important milestone.
If a super PAC waited until then to register, it doesn’t need to file any information about its donors with the FEC until 30 days after the election. Pretty smooth, eh?
“The problem with these last-minute pop-up super PACs is that they could allow one individual, corporation or union to enter the campaign at the last minute with an overwhelming amount of money that could change the outcome of an individual race,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance attorney and partner at Akerman LLP, “and the public would have no idea who was funding the effort when they go into the voting booth.”
About 28 such committees have cropped up so far since Oct. 20. (You can check them out for yourself by visiting the FEC’s new committee registration page.) Around 27 of these PACs appeared up until Election Day in 2014, and 33 in 2012.
Of the last-minute PACs we did count this year, only seven have filed independent spending reports so far, with a total of $220,000 in outlays.
“I don’t find that surprising,” Kappel said. “If someone wanted use a super PAC for really nefarious purposes, the PAC would make its expenditures as late as possible – like this weekend – and then would not have to report them until Sunday or even Monday, the day before the election.”
Of the committees that have filed expenditure reports, Truth PAC has spent the most so far. Dick Brass, a former executive at Microsoft and Oracle, created the Seattle-based super PAC. The group turned in a 24-hour filing on Nov. 5, reporting $92,000 spent against Donald Trump, and is planning on spending into the six digits.
“Why is Trump acting like a traitor?” reads the text of the group’s ads above Trump and Putin’s faces overlaid on six Russian nesting dolls. “Because a puppet obeys his master.”
The PAC used footage of Trump reading a news story about his complete ban of Muslims into the United States, but overlaid “the Jews” and “Mormons” over the word “Muslims.” The ad ended with the text, “We changed one word…No one is safe unless everyone is safe.” FCC filings show the group bought time in West Palm Beach in the days right before the election, including Nov. 7.
Another group lists as its treasurer a name we’ve seen before: Nancy Watkins, a go-to FEC accountant in Republican circles. She’s affiliated with at least 20 PACs this cycle–all conservative–such as Ending Spending Action Fund, which is run by the Ricketts family and has spent $7.8 million so far this cycle, and Conservative Solutions PAC, a super PAC that spent $60 million supporting Marco Rubio’s presidential run. Her newest venture is The Liberty and Justice Fund, registered Nov. 2. The group hasn’t yet filed an independent expenditure report or any filings with the FCC, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one. Watkins didn’t return a request for comment by the time we went to press.
Of the additional groups that have reported spending so far, Missouri Right to Life Victory Fund has spent the second-most. We know it’s a branch of Missouri Right to Life Committee, a pro-life grassroots organization, and lists its address as a P.O. box in Jefferson City, Mo., but not its donors. The group has spent almost $60,000 since it was formed on Oct. 24, mostly for Trump and Roy Blunt, the incumbent Republican trying to keep his Missouri Senate seat.
The group poured about $42,000 into supporting Blunt and bashing his Democratic opponent, Jason Kander, which seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the almost $40 million in total spent by outside groups in that Senate race. A representative did not respond to requests for comment.
“A huge ad buy the three days before the election could affect the outcome of a House race,” Kappel said. “Obviously it’s less likely to have a definitive impact on a Senate or Presidential race unless it’s a multi-million dollar ad buy – but that could be done by one of these last-minute pop-up super PACs.”
The other newly-formed PACs spending some last minute cash includes the Golden State Leadership Fund PAC, a Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based group that has spent $36,000 supporting Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) in his race against fellow Democrat Ro Khanna to keep his District 17 seat.
The Phoenix PAC Make Arizona Strong poured $14,000 into backing Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) as she tries to hang on to her seat. And Chinese Americans for Keeping America Great spent $5,600 opposing Donald Trump with Facebook and print ads. None of these groups returned requests seeking comment.
This is not to say that creating a committee late means the founder has secretive intentions.
“Sure, nothing about what we’re doing is intended to be secret,” said Alexander Sanchez, the treasurer for A Fair & Just Virginia PAC, which has spent $10,700 opposing Rep. Barbara Comstock, the GOP incumbent seeking re-election. “I’ve never done this before so I’m not particularly immersed in what has to be done in terms of deadlines and filings.”
Sanchez agreed to send OpenSecrets Blog a list of the group’s donors, but has not yet done so.
And Concerned Citizens of Indian River County, which spent all $3,637 of its donations on pro-Trump messaging, actually filed an October quarterly report with the FEC that includes its donors who gave more than $200, despite not being required to do so until later on.
“We did call the FEC regarding the regulations and they told us it would be fine to file everything now,” said Rosemarie Frigerio, the PAC’s treasurer.
There’s a whole other category of sneakiness we didn’t include here: Super PACs have to file a pre-general report on Oct. 20 only if they make expenditures from Oct. 1-19. So if they do nothing but raise money during that time, and spend the day after, their donors, too, can also be shrouded until Dec. 8.
With the loooong election season finally coming to an end tomorrow, it’s nice to have something to look forward to.