Hillary Clinton fashions herself as the ultimate general in a war against big-money politics.
“You’re not going to find anybody more committed to aggressive campaign finance reform than me,” Clinton said following the New Hampshire primary.
But the Democratic presidential front-runner stands poised to bludgeon her general election opponent with Republicans’ favorite political superweapon: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which earlier this decade launched a new era of unbridled fundraising.
Clinton’s massive campaign machine is built of the very stuff — super PACs, secret cash, unlimited contributions — she says she’ll attack upon winning the White House.
Indeed, a Center for Public Integrity investigation reveals that Clinton’s own election efforts are largely immune from her reformist platform. While Clinton rails against “unaccountable money” that is “corrupting our political system,” corporations, unions and nonprofits bankrolled by unknown donors have already poured millions of dollars into a network of Clinton-boosting political organizations. That’s on top of the tens of millions an elite club of Democratic megadonors, including billionaires George Soros and Haim Saban, have contributed.
>> UPDATE: FEC fines contractor that gave pro-Clinton super PACs illegal cash
Far from denouncing their support, Clinton has embraced it, personally wooing potential super PAC donors and dispatching former President Bill Clinton and campaign chairman John Podesta on similar missions.
Several of the big-money groups crucial to the Clinton-for-president effort are led or advised by one man, Clinton scourge-turned-disciple David Brock, who’s also seized control of — and defanged, former staffers say — a prominent, nonpartisan watchdog group that helped lay groundwork for what’s become the Clinton email server scandal. Each of the groups plays a specific role, from advertising to opposition research, in bolstering the Hillary for America campaign committee Clinton herself leads.
Clinton’s campaign argues it “cannot afford to unilaterally disarm” and quit the big-money game. That, they say, is because powerful conservative interests, most notably the secretive outfits backed by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, plan to support the Republican presidential nominee with hundreds of millions of dollars. Republican front-runner Donald Trump, himself a billionaire, is burning his own wealth as campaign fuel.
“When she is elected president, Hillary Clinton will make it a priority to restore a government of, by and for the people,” spokesman Josh Schwerin told the Center for Public Integrity.
Not satisfactory, say some prominent liberals, whose reactions range from underwhelmed to apoplectic.
They cite Bernie Sanders as proof a Democratic presidential candidate can contend in elections mostly on the strength of small-dollar donations — and without cultivating support from super PACs and billionaires.
Clinton’s supposedly reform-minded campaign, they continue, has instead tolerated, if not encouraged, a Democratic operation akin to what the Koch brothers have wrought.
“It’d be like tobacco companies coming out and saying they wanted to fight against lung cancer,” said Dylan Ratigan, the former MSNBC television host and author of New York Times bestseller Greedy Bastards, who hasn’t yet endorsed a presidential candidate. “In a way, the Koch brothers have more credibility than Clinton on election money issues — they’re at least upfront about how they want to use money to buy politics.”
A Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos poll conducted in late February indicates many potential general election voters are likewise concerned about how serious Clinton is about remaking the nation’s campaign system —a monumental challenge under any circumstance, but a goal supported by the vast majority of Americans.
Half of all poll respondents overall — and nearly four in 10 self-identified Democrats — said Clinton is relying on super PACs and big money too much. That compares to 18 percent overall who said Clinton is relying on them the “right amount” and 5 percent who said “too little.”
And when asked, “If elected president, which of the following would do the most to reform the campaign finance system and make it less reliant on big money?” Clinton trailed both Sanders and Trump among respondents.
The situation has frightened some conservatives, who see Clinton evolving into a sort of Madam Strangelove, worrying little about lefty protestations while learning to love her backers’ money bombs. Almost never, they note, does Clinton speak ill — or at all — of the specific super PACs supporting her and itching to damage Republicans.
And she almost never speaks out against pro-Clinton money that’s difficult, if not impossible, to trace to a flesh-and-blood source, such as corporate treasury dollars or donations from “social welfare” nonprofits that may, by law, hide their own contributors from public view.
Call it pragmatism, call it ruthlessness. By any name, Clinton’s acceptance of big-money politics means trouble for Republicans, who’ve been reveling all decade in the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The ruling freed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates. Conservatives have embraced Citizens United more widely than liberals, many of whom consider poorly regulated political money a poison that weakens democracy.
What initially prompted the high court’s decision? A dispute over a decidedly anti-Clinton movie that a conservative nonprofit organization called Citizens United wanted to broadcast during the 2008 presidential primaries.
“Wouldn’t you know that Hillary Clinton has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision,” Citizens United President David Bossie said. “It is an irony that is not lost on me.”
A ‘Milky Way’ of Clinton groups
During the 2016 election cycle, most presidential candidates have enjoyed support from super PACs created for one reason: to supercharge the candidates’ campaigns.
The development represents the full flourishing of a trend that began during the 2012 presidential election. While technically separate from the campaigns they back — federal law prohibits super PACs and campaigns from coordinating most spending — the super PACs are legally independent, but often run by friends, associates or former staffers of the presidential candidate being supported.
And Clinton has been a trailblazer: Three cash-flush super PACs, stacked with Clinton allies, exist almost exclusively to strengthen Clinton’s presidential effort.
Priorities USA Action, for example, is an advertising juggernaut that’s already spent millions helping Clinton secure the Democratic nomination. Ready for Hillary PAC (now Ready PAC) organizes and collects information from grassroots supporters. Correct the Record serves as a political SWAT unit attacking those who attack Clinton.
A fourth super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, aides Democratic candidates in general with opposition research — and was praised by Clinton at its outset.
That group’s recent efforts largely focus on researching, tracking, embarrassing and damaging candidates competing in the Republican presidential primary. Barring a contested Republican National Convention where a non-candidate fantastically becomes the nominee, one will face Clinton in the general election.
These four core pro-Clinton super PACs have together raised more than $86 million toward Election 2016, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of the groups’ most recent filings with federal regulators. The true figure is almost certainly larger — significantly larger — because three of the four super PACs haven’t yet disclosed money they’ve raised since Jan. 1.
Of this known haul, about $14 million collectively — about one of every six dollars raised — comes from dozens of corporate, union or nonprofit sources. Tracking these contributions to a human source ranges from relatively easy to effectively impossible.
And these pro-Clinton super PACs are intimately linked.
Two of them — American Bridge 21st Century and Correct the Record — share space in a Washington, D.C., office building at 455 Massachusetts Ave. NW — “its exquisite interior is appointed with materials of the finest quality,” building developers boast.
Federal records show all four super PACs regularly shuttle millions of dollars in cash and resources among themselves. This means an initial, anonymous contribution to one super PAC can flow through any of the rest before it’s finally used to help Clinton.
Consider the $1 million Priorities USA Action gave Correct the Record in December. Correct the Record, in turn, gave American Bridge 21st Century $400,000 later that month.
Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record, which is pushing legal boundaries by coordinating many of its efforts directly with Clinton’s campaign, have even formed a federal joint fundraising committee called American Priorities 16, a vehicle that allows the two groups to more seamlessly solicit donations and swap resources.
No tie binds these groups closer than Brock, the Clinton ally who either leads or has advised or assisted them all. The irony here is rich: Brock publicly hounded the Clintons during the 1990s before transforming himself from an unabashed conservative into a blue-streaked liberal.
Brock is also involved with several nonprofit organizations friendly to Clinton’s cause, such as Media Matters for America, which tracks conservative communications, and the American Independent Institute, which funds journalism exposing “the nexus of conservative power in Washington.” Brock’s American Democracy Legal Fund — a political group managed by Correct the Record chief Brad Woodhouse and funded in part by American Bridge 21st Century — last month slapped Sanders with a Federal Election Commission complaint accusing his campaign of violating federal campaign laws.
Another key Clinton supporter is Emily’s List, a political fundraising operation that helps fund the campaigns of Democratic women who support abortion rights. It’s partnering with Priorities USA Action on a project to mobilize women voters on Clinton’s behalf. It also formed a federal joint fundraising committee with Priorities USA Action.
Additionally, super PAC Planned Parenthood Votes, which supports multiple Democratic candidates, has spent more than $1.2 million on pro-Clinton efforts this election. Planned Parenthood has endorsed Clinton and works closely with Priorities USA Action.
“She doesn’t just have a constellation, she has a galaxy — a Milky Way — of this outside funding,” says former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who ran against Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary and dropped his bid in October.
Leaders of the pro-Clinton super PACs say they serve an essential purpose: efficiently and effectively defending her against Republicans who will use the Citizens United decision against Clinton to the greatest extent possible.
Clinton, they continue, also can’t be expected to battle unlimited political money with limited resources — the most a presidential candidate’s own campaign may accept from an individual donor during the general election is $2,700.
Brock, for his part, says he’s “very proud of the progressive infrastructure” that he’s helped build in a bid to aid Clinton.
After the Citizens United decision, Brock said, Democrats and liberals had a choice.
They could bury their “collective heads in our ideals and principles and cede the new political reality to the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers or play by the rules as they are and play to win,” Brock said. “We made the decision, the correct and only one in our view, to play by the rules as they are and play to win so that progressives can gain enough political power to move America forward in a number of critical areas including campaign finance reform.”
Added Justin Barasky, a Priorities USA Action spokesman: “To think we’re not going to fight back against those attacks would be political malpractice. We’re not going to allow Republicans to buy an election.”
Barasky said that Priorities USA Action, which is led by former Clinton aide Guy Cecil, does support Clinton’s campaign finance reform platform. Barasky also noted that the super PAC’s leaders recently shut down its sister nonprofit, Priorities USA, which had accepted millions of dollars in undisclosed contributions while it was still largely a vehicle for supporting President Barack Obama and his political agenda.
Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesman, says he’s not buying it.
Priorities USA Action, he notes, has spent huge quantities of money to promote Clinton not in the general election against a Republican, but in key Democratic primary states where she was competing against Sanders. (Priorities USA Action has spent more than $5.5 million to boost Clinton, FEC disclosures show.)
“We found a way to raise significant amounts of money from small donors,” said Briggs, adding that Sanders’ average contribution today is still close to, if not exactly, the $27 figure Sanders loves to tout from the campaign trail. “Clinton’s super PACs — it’s clearly a way for her to raise a lot of special interest money from a system that’s corrupt. This reliance, and the secrecy, raises the same questions that are raised about why she won’t release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street executives.”
Heading into March, Clinton’s own campaign committee had raised about $160 million to the Sanders campaign’s $140 million.
But super PACs supporting Clinton had together raised tens of millions of additional dollars while no super PACs exist to primarily back Sanders.
One key Clinton super PAC backer has received particular attention from Clinton.
On July 2, Clinton personally wrote Saban, who with his wife, Cheryl, has contributed $5 million to Priorities USA Action this election cycle. Clinton’s letter solicited Saban’s “thoughts and recommendations” on how to counter the “boycott, divestment and sanction” movement against Israel’s presence in Palestinian territory.
“I will be speaking out publicly on this issue in the weeks ahead, so I am eager to hear your perspective and advice,” Clinton wrote Saban, adding in a handwritten postscript: “Looking forward to working with you on this.”
The letter came three days after Saban, a billionaire TV mogul, and his wife together contributed $2 million to Priorities USA Action.
An uneasy relationship
On the campaign trail, and on her own terms, Clinton alludes to shadowy political money as the currency of a modern right-wing conspiracy.
“We have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our election, corrupting our political process, drowning out the voices and votes of people,” Clinton said in a speech last year.
“As president, I’ll appoint Supreme Court justices who recognize that Citizens United is bad for America. And if necessary, I’ll fight for a constitutional amendment that overturns it,” Clinton wrote in a CNN op-ed piece marking the sixth anniversary of the Citizens United decision.
“Big surprise: A flood of money from rich people, corporations, special interests has poured into our politics,” Clinton said during a speech last month in Madison, Wisconsin. “The idea, I believe, that money is speech turns our Constitution upside down … the Supreme Court has given the wealthiest Americans even greater power to affect what happens in our democracy.”
But Clinton and her campaign often bristle at direct inquiries about her campaign’s relationship with super PACs and other big-money political forces that support her.
At a Democratic debate Feb. 11 in Milwaukee, for example, Clinton parried PBS News Hour anchor Judy Woodruff’s inquiry about millions of dollars liberal financiers George Soros and Donald Sussman have poured into Priorities USA Action.
(The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)
“You’re referring to a super PAC that we don’t coordinate with, that was set up to support President Obama, that has now decided that they want to support me,” Clinton said. “They are the ones who should respond to any questions. Let’s talk about our campaigns.”
When Sanders later pressed her about Priorities USA Action, she shot back: “It’s not my PAC.”
Schwerin, Clinton’s spokesman, declined to address specific Center for Public Integrity questions about secret and tough-to-track money that super PACs are using to support her candidacy.
He likewise declined to answer questions about Brock, the leader of many pro-Clinton organizations.
Such responses fit the pattern of Clinton’s campaign: Eschew talk of the cash-flush political groups orbiting her campaign, or even in general about super PACs and the like.
This proves especially true when Clinton is face-to-face with Sanders, who often antagonizes her about her paid speeches to Wall Street executives, connections with wealthy supporters and support from big-spending groups that wouldn’t exist in their current forms but for Citizens United.
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of Democratic presidential debate transcripts indicates that Sanders almost always mentions the Citizens United decision, super PACs and other money-in-politics topics more than Clinton does.
Technically, Clinton is correct about her relationship with super PACs: Federal law prohibits her, or any presidential candidate, from commanding and controlling super PACs that back them. (Even Sanders receives modest support from super PACs and “dark money” nonprofits and he can’t legally force them to stop.)
But many do the next best thing: Both Clinton and most of her Republican counterparts have instead stood by, without quarrel, as close political operatives and intimates fuel and run supportive super PACs.
Priorities USA Action paid Paul Begala, a close Clinton friend, $200,000 for “communications consulting” work from January 2014 to August 2015, FEC records show. Begala also aided Ready for Hillary PAC.
During that time and beyond, Begala also worked as an on-air political contributor for CNN, frequently commenting on Clinton, her opponents and the presidential race in general — and not always disclosing his relationship with Priorities USA Action or Ready for Hillary PAC.
How close are Clinton and Begala? Close enough that Begala on April 28, 2009, asked Clinton associates at the U.S. State Department for “a briefing on what HRC has accomplished in the first hundred days” of her tenure as secretary of state.
He’d be talking about Clinton on an upcoming CNN special, he explained.
Twelve minutes later, an aide forwarded Begala’s message to Clinton’s top advisers, including Huma Abedin, Philippe Reines, Cheryl Mills and P.J. Crowley. Begala apparently got what he wanted, writing back to say, “PJ can give me what I need.”
Begala then appeared on CNN April 29 to discuss Clinton’s performance. Afterward, he emailed Mills with an update.
“I gave Sec. Clinton an A+ in our dopey CNN report card last night,” he told her in an email, released after a federal judge ordered the State Department to publish most emails Clinton wrote and received from a private address she used for official business.
“Xo,” replied Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff.
Finally, Mills forwarded the email chain to Clinton herself at Clinton’s now-notorious private email address — the contents of which were housed on a private server in her New York state home that’s now the subject of an FBI investigation.
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.
Brock also assimilated into his network another brand-name organization — Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — that few would have previously mistaken as a Clinton cheerleader.
CREW, a nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog, routinely hounded Republicans, but pursued its share of Democrats, as well.
And it was CREW, in December 2012, that filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding U.S. State Department officials cough up information about email accounts Clinton used as secretary of state — an action that helped give wings to what, this election, has become Clinton’s unshakable political albatross.
But after Brock became CREW’s chairman in August 2014, co-founder and Executive Director Melanie Sloan tendered her resignation. She officially quit in January 2015. And since Sloan departed, CREW has all but ignored liberal politicos.
Not so with conservatives: CREW has filed more than 20 formal complaints against various Republican politicians, Republican operatives or right-leaning political groups, a Center for Public Integrity review of CREW’s publicly disclosed activities indicates.
Among its targets: Christie, a political organization backing Rubio and a charitable organization led by Trump.
CREW’s most notable public actions against Democrats since January 2015 are comparatively tepid: It filed one complaint against a Democratic-aligned organization — a nonprofit supporting Jersey City, New Jersey, Mayor Steven Fulop — and scolded federally indicted Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., in statements.
Meanwhile, the “CREW’s Most Corrupt” report, which the nonprofit had published every year in some form since 2005, ceased after Brock became CREW chairman. The report routinely lambasted liberal members of Congress, including some who’ve endorsed Clinton this election, such as Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.
CREW’s operations immediately changed upon Brock’s arrival, said Anne Weismann, who was then the organization’s chief counsel, and briefly, acting executive director. She left CREW in 2015 and now works as executive director for the Campaign for Accountability, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization.
“From a blog item on up, it was made clear CREW was not to go forward with anything without Brock’s approval,” Weismann said. “We prided ourselves on being fearless and nonpartisan, and we were not afraid to go after Democrats. After Brock came, it was no longer the case at all … that we had that discretion. It’s unfortunate.”
Sloan, who now runs consulting firm Triumph Strategy, declined to comment.
Noah Bookbinder, who succeeded Sloan as executive director, says CREW remains “a very different kind of place than the other organizations David [Brock] works with.”
CREW’s focus, Bookbinder said, has somewhat shifted toward state-level affairs and money-in-politics matters and away from certain past projects, such as “CREW’s Most Corrupt” and investigating government email systems. All the same, Bookbinder says it’s important to him that CREW “maintain the independence and credibility that it’s always had.”
Today, Brock serves as board vice chairman of CREW, which last year moved into the same building as pro-Clinton Correct the Record and American Bridge 21st Century. Asked about his current involvement with the watchdog group, Brock said that in his “interaction in the day-to-day business of CREW, I have not made any restrictions about who CREW could or should bring complaints against or comment on. … It remains focused on corruption and corporate influence, wherever we find it.”
Real estate executive and longtime Democratic donor Albert Dwoskin became CREW’s chairman last year when Brock transitioned from chairman to vice chairman.
For his part, Dwoskin has donated more than $15,400 to Clinton’s campaigns and pro-Clinton political committees over the years, federal records indicate. That includes $2,700 — the legal maximum — to Clinton’s presidential campaign in April 2015. That also includes more than $10,700 worth of office space he contributed in-kind to Ready for Hillary PAC during 2013.
Wayne Jordan, a major Democratic Party donor, and David Mercer, a longtime Democratic operative with close ties to the Clintons, also joined CREW’s board in 2014, IRS records show.
Campaign reform activists underwhelmed
On the campaign trail, Clinton’s words should hearten souls that believe money isn’t speech and should be more heavily regulated by the government.
But Clinton has a problem: Her seemingly natural allies are balking.
A telling development occurred in late February, when Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, declined to support Hillary Clinton — and instead endorsed Sanders.
In doing so, Reich took a leave of absence from his post as chairman of Common Cause, one of the nation’s foremost campaign finance reform organizations.
If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, Reich says he’ll support her.
But he worried aloud about whether Clinton, as president, would ever fight like he believes Sanders would fight to overhaul campaign funding rules.
“It will not be easy for any candidate, especially one who has taken a lot of super PAC money, to disavow super PACs,” Reich told the Center for Public Integrity. “For Sanders, this issue is one of the central tenets of his campaign, and if he’s elected, he has a mandate to act. She does not.”
Among the more than 20 campaign finance reform group officials the Center for Public Integrity interviewed about Clinton in February and March, many offered some measure of understanding for Clinton’s situation — with several employing the “she can’t unilaterally disarm” talking point the Clinton campaign uses.
In other words: Better that Clinton play and win by the lousy election rules in place today and reform the system later than martyr herself on some altar of idealism.
“Her solutions are robust, and I believe it when she says she’ll follow through,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president for People for the American Way, which advocates for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
“We don’t expect her to lay down arms. We would like to see her elevate this issue into a centerpiece of her campaign,” said Adam Lioz, counsel and senior adviser at Demos.
Many others, stung by what they consider Obama’s underperformance on political transparency and campaign reform matters, have this advice for Clinton: Show us, don’t tell us.
They want to see a President Hillary Clinton sign an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose funding they give “dark money” political nonprofits.
They want to see her appoint new commissioners to the ever-gridlocked Federal Election Commission, where five of six commissioners continue to serve despite their terms having long ago expired.
And they most certainly want to see her engage congressional reform proposals, even if they’re relatively modest measures such as incentivizing people to make small-dollar political contributions.
“There are some things we need to see before we can figure out the level of her commitment,” said David Donnelly, president and chief executive of Every Voice.
Others are more skeptical. Much more skeptical.
“There’s nothing in her background that suggests this will be a top priority for her,” said Trevor Potter, president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and a former FEC chairman who served as general counsel for Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“If her candidacy is any reflection of her personal priorities, she’s a hypocrite,” said Cyrus Patten, chief executive of Mayday.US, which works to elect hardcore campaign reformers. “My faith in her commitment to change is slim.”
Why, some asked, didn’t Clinton months ago attempt to build her reformist résumé by, say, proposing a super PAC détente with her Democratic rivals?
They pointed to a “People’s Pledge” agreement struck during the 2012 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and then-Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
“It’s a bit of a cop-out to say there’s no other option available” than to use the power of Citizens United, said Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, national director for Move to Amend. “All candidates have a choice.”
Harvard University professor Larry Lessig, who last year briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination on an election reform-centric platform, agrees.
“[Clinton] runs a campaign where she avoids the issue wherever she can,” said Lessig, who wants to publicly fund congressional elections he considers gamed by corporate and other big-money interests. “If we don’t fix Congress, nothing else matters.”
Then there’s Cenk Uygur, host of liberal politics show “The Young Turks.” He offers this wager: “I bet my bottom dollar Hillary Clinton will do absolutely nothing to change the system,” Uygur said. “If you believe her, you’re a sucker.”
Schwerin, Clinton’s spokesman, defended her reform record.
He noted that as a U.S. senator, Clinton co-sponsored numerous bills aimed at enhancing donation disclosure and increasing public campaign financing.
She also co-sponsored perhaps the highest-profile piece of campaign reform legislation this century: the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 — better known as McCain-Feingold.
“Hillary Clinton,” Schwerin said, “has spent her career fighting for campaign finance reform.”
It’s not inconceivable that the existential threat Clinton supporters offer as justification for them adopting Citizens United-inspired campaign techniques — the Koch brothers’ political network — could stand down during the general election.
The Washington Post reports that the Koch-backed groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, are mulling whether to abandon Trump if Republicans make him their presidential candidate. Instead, Koch groups would pour their prodigious resources into U.S. House and U.S. Senate races. (Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks declined to comment.)
Were such a situation to transpire, Clinton’s super PAC and nonprofit network could dominate in size and scope any of the entities Republicans currently have at their disposal, including super PAC American Crossroads and sister nonprofit Crossroads GPS, both of which were messaging powerhouses during the 2012 presidential election. Pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action is already skewering Trump.
Establishment Republicans say they’d have no qualms pummeling Clinton on this point or her broader embrace of Citizens United-driven electioneering.
“It undermines the central premise of what she’s saying about super PACs … it’s clear hypocrisy, and it’ll be a problem for her,” said Amelia Chassé, spokeswoman for America Rising PAC, a Republican super PAC specializing in “exposing the truth about Democrats through video tracking, research and communications.”
In the meantime, there’s one man who’s convinced Clinton will use every political weapon at her disposal in order to again reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — the father of super PACs.
“Seems she believes what she’s doing is not harmful for the system, and she doesn’t think it’s corrupting her,” said David Keating, an attorney whose 2010 federal court victory in SpeechNow.org v. FEC gave rise to super PACs. “If Hillary does get elected, I hope her positive experience in the campaign will convince her that the rules should be left in place the way they are.”
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.