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December 17, 2014

Single-Candidate Dead End Disclosure

By Matt Corley and David Crockett

Scott Brown

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling ushered in the super PAC era, freeing outside groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. The 2012 elections saw the advent of the single-candidate super PAC – an entity completely dedicated to electing one candidate. These groups became the norm in races across the country during the 2014 mid-term elections. 

As CREW noted in its analysis of the 2014 elections, single-candidate nonprofits, which don’t have to disclose their donors, emerged as a new kind of dark money group this cycle. The best example of this is the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which spent at least $13.4 million on ads benefitting Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). In some cases, nonprofits funded single-candidate super PACs, creating a hybrid of the two: single-candidate dead end disclosure. The saga of Strong Economy for Growth, Inc. and Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC illustrates this perfectly.

Independent Spending for Scott Brown

When former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) trekked north of the border on his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to return to the U.S. Senate, he touted his roots as a “ninth generation” New Hampshirite. Even as he promoted himself as a born again denizen of the Granite State, former Sen. Brown didn’t leave behind his connections to the Massachusetts Republican party. Old hands from the Massachusetts GOP helped funnel $165,000 to a super PAC backing him — and no one knows where the money came from since it was moved through a nonprofit.

Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC, an organization “committed to restoring common sense to Washington by electing Scott Brown to the United State Senate,” was formed just a few weeks after Sen. Brown announced his intention to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). The super PAC, which ultimately spent over $835,000 attacking Sen. Shaheen, had close ties to Sen. Brown’s campaign. The group’s finance director was Henry Pfirrmann, who was a part of Sen. Brown’s finance team in 2012. Sen. Brown reportedly even appeared at events for the group.

In August and September 2014, Strong Economy for Growth, a tax-exempt social welfare group organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, donated $85,000 to Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC. Strong Economy for Growth contributed another $80,000 in October 2014, making the group the super PAC’s second largest contributor. Where the group got its money is unknown since it is not required to disclose its donors.

Strong Economy for Dark Money

Strong Economy for Growth was founded in January 2013 and is deeply connected to Richard Tisei, who was Massachusetts’ only competitive Republican congressional challenger in 2012 and 2014. Ashley Korb, the group’s initial treasurer and secretary, is the financial director for Mr. Tisei’s campaign committee. Ernesto Digiambattista, the group’s president, also runs Strong Economy for Massachusetts Inc., a single-candidate super PAC backing Mr. Tisei. The super PAC was founded by former Rep. Peter Torkildsen (R-MA), who previously held the 6th district seat sought by Mr. Tisei, and Mr. Digiambattista served as treasurer before taking over for former Rep. Torkildsen. In the 2012 election, Strong Economy for Massachusetts spent $255,000 on behalf of Mr. Tisei. This year, the group spent $17,065  producing a web-ad declaring he has “a proven record of independence.” 

In addition to its contributions to Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC, Strong Economy for Growth contributed to two other political groups in 2014. The group gave $3,500 to Strong Economy Massachusetts Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee (IE PAC), another group created by Mr. Digiambattista, which used the funds to run online advertising for Governor-elect Charlie Baker. Both Strong Economy for Growth and Strong Economy for Massachusetts IE PAC also donated to a Massachusetts committee opposing a ballot initiative to tie the state gas tax to inflation. According to a search of campaign finance records by CREW, Strong Economy for Growth supported no other federal, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire candidates or committees in 2014.

Other than its website, Strong Economy for Growth has basically no public profile. On the website, the group promises to be a source for “issue and policy research” that will “educate, inform, and build support for policies,” but the rest of the website is blank. Rather, the group seems to mostly exist to funnel money to support Massachusetts Republicans like Mr. Baker and former Sen. Brown. All while keeping its donors secret.

Strong Economy for Growth’s money could come from anywhere. There is no way of knowing what interests used it as a vehicle to boost former Sen. Brown’s candidacy. Tomorrow, CREW will look at dead end disclosure from groups that have a clear financial interest, but who still want to keep individual supporters secret: trade associations.

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CREW Series: Dead End Disclosure in the 2014 Elections

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