This article is published in partnership with Public Radio International.
FAIRFAX, Va. — With a sizable American flag as her backdrop and supporters toting signs reading “The Best President Money Can’t Buy,” Elizabeth Warren decried the role big bucks play in politics.
“Corruption, the influence of money, touches every decision that gets made in Washington,” the Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator from Massachusetts told hundreds of people attending her May 16 campaign event at George Mason University in Virginia. “Whatever issue brought you here today, I guarantee if there’s a decision to be made in Washington, it’s been touched, pushed, massaged, tilted over, just a little, so the folks with money do better than everyone else.”
Warren’s declaration aligns with her aggressive rejection of traditional sources of campaign cash, from political action committees to lobbyists. Everyone will have access to her, she says, not just wealthy donors. She’s instituted “selfie lines” at rallies. She releases videos of herself personally calling donors who’ve contributed just a few dollars.
But Warren has also selected for her presidential campaign treasurer a man whose contributions run counter to Warren’s statements — among the most emphatic among the more than 20 Democrats running for president — against big money in politics.
Dubbed a “personal PAC man” to politicians by The Boston Globe more than a decade ago, retired software engineer Paul Egerman, 70, has quietly established himself as a key benefactor and rainmaker for Democratic political committees and liberal causes.
Since 1995, Egerman and his wife, Joanne, have given more than $8.4 million to various Democratic candidates and PACs, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data.
Of that, Egerman has contributed $1.7 million to the pro-Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, which is also affiliated with a “dark money” group — raising political cash that can’t be traced to its original source. In 2012, he gave $56,000 to Rethink PAC, a super PAC that helped Warren in her successful campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
During the 2017-2018 election cycle, he contributed substantial sums to major super PACs, giving a combined $920,000 to super PACs Planned Parenthood Votes and Senate Majority PAC, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Egerman also serves as a conduit between Democrats and big-dollar political donors.
For example, he’s the board treasurer for Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy Democratic donors that helps support liberal causes and has counted liberal megadonors such as George Soros, Donald Sussman and Tom Steyer among its members. He’s also been an advisory council member to J Street, a political nonprofit and PAC that seeks to promote American leadership in creating a two-state resolution between Palestine and Israel.
Egerman in 2014 also hosted an ultra-exclusive Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser at his Massachusetts home. President Barack Obama attended. The entry price per person: $32,400, according to The Boston Globe.
Warren’s campaign declined to comment on Egerman and directed questions to Egerman himself.
Egerman declined to answer specific questions from the Center for Public Integrity but said in an emailed statement: “Elizabeth doesn’t do high-dollar fundraisers or call time, but I encourage anyone who supports her to help in any way they can.”
A CHANCE MEETING
Egerman is very much a self-made millionaire. The grandson of Russian immigrants, he was raised in San Jose, California, by his mother, where his school year centered around the farming and canning season of prunes, he told The Boston Globe.
The father of two made his riches through successful business ventures. His first company, a healthcare software technology company named IDX, went public in the 1990s. He sold his speech recognition software for physicians, eScription, in 2008 for a deal reported to be worth $400 million.
Egerman’s history with Warren began about a decade ago, when he met her on an airplane. He’d later become campaign finance chairman for Warren’s 2012 U.S. Senate campaign.
Egerman also was a regional fundraising committee member for Obama prior to Obama’s election in 2008.
In 2012, Egerman told The Boston Globe that he believes wealthy Americans have a responsibility to improve the lives of those less fortunate.
“It’s incumbent upon people like me, who’ve been successful, to pay it forward so the next kid has the same opportunity I had,” said Egerman, who’s worked with the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of high-net worth individuals “united in their concern about the destabilizing concentration of wealth and power in America.”
The most essential role of a political campaign committee treasurer — the role Egerman plays for Warren — is to ensure the committee complies with the law.
Campaign treasurers’ core duties include signing and filing all committee reports and statements and authorizing expenditures, or assigning someone to authorize expenditures and monitor campaign contributions, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But it can be more than a paper pushing gig. A lot more. For example, Obama named Martin Nesbitt, a wealthy businessman and close personal friend, his initial presidential campaign treasurer. Nesbitt also served as one of Obama’s campaign “bundlers” — top fundraisers who collect money from friends and associates and deliver the cash to a political campaign in a “bundle.”
Several political strategists and campaign finance advocates said having a known donor serve as a candidate’s treasurer is a stamp of approval for a campaign’s legitimacy — and a signal for potential donors to pay attention.
Furthermore, treasurers are free to fundraise for candidates, said Myles Martin, a Federal Election Commission spokesman.
IS WARREN HAVING IT BOTH WAYS?
Of the roughly $6 million Warren’s presidential campaign raised during the year’s first three months, more than two-thirds came from people giving $200 or less, according to FEC records. (This doesn’t include $10.41 million Warren transferred from her U.S. Senate campaign account to her presidential campaign account.)
In his email, Egerman did not address a question about whether he planned to do any fundraising for Warren or tap into his network of wealthy friends and associates.
So, is Warren’s work with Egerman hypocritical?
Bradley Smith, a former FEC chairman and now chairman of the Institute for Free Speech, a nonprofit that advocates against campaign finance limits, isn’t convinced.
“I doubt that many of her followers think ‘I can’t back her now,’” he said. “It shows that they haven’t thought this [her stances on money in politics] through.”
Corey Goldstone of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for stricter campaign finance limits, praised Warren for her commitment to decreasing the influence of money in politics.
But he added that it’s reasonable to question how much influence a longtime donor such as Egerman will have over the direction of a campaign and noted that Warren has not yet agreed to release the identities of her presidential campaign’s bundlers — something candidates aren’t generally compelled by law to do.
Some do volunteer the information: South Bend, Indiana, mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg recently released a list of bundlers to the Center for Public Integrity. Several other presidential contenders, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, as well as Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, said they’d publicly disclose bundler details.
Some attendees at Warren’s campaign event last week said they want to support a presidential candidate who isn’t easily influenced by big money and caters to grassroots supporters.
Theo Meale, a rising junior at George Mason University, attended Warren’s event to hear what she had to say and because she’s one of the few presidential candidates who’s so far come to the area. Meale, who said he believes that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission should be overturned, said Warren’s stand against big money is courageous.
Warren’s closeness to Egerman, or potentially to other big donors, is not a dealbreaker for him. But “the further you distance yourself, the better,” Meale added.
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The Center for Public Integrity is an independent, investigative newsroom that exposes betrayals of the public trust by powerful interests.
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