Historic fines recently levied by federal regulators against a super PAC and foreign contributor, based on legally required public disclosures raise important questions about how political groups that don’t reveal their donors raise and spend their funds for political purposes. The super PAC affiliated with Jeb Bush that was fined just so happens to be linked to one of these non-disclosing groups.

Their tax returns show they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the 2016 presidential campaign, but concealed their activity by routing the spending through at least one other group, raising additional concerns about where their money came from.

Last week, the Federal Election Commission assessed $940,000 in fines against a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC called Right to Rise and a Chinese-owned corporation that donated more than a million dollars to it for violating rules against foreign political spending. The violations were discovered by reporters at The Intercept, who reviewed a public campaign filing that showed the contribution, then received what amounted to a confession from the president of the foreign corporation.

But if the contribution hadn’t been disclosed, the violation would likely have never been discovered.  As Campaign Legal Center, who filed the FEC complaint that resulted in the fine, said in their release, “The law can’t be enforced against foreign money if the money isn’t disclosed at all.”

The illegal campaign finance scheme raises questions about a non-disclosing political group with nearly the exact same name and which shared staff with Right to Rise that indirectly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking Bush’s opponents in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. The spending was made through an arrangement where the group, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, gave to at least one other non-disclosing political group that then funded ads attacking Bush’s opponents in the race.

By routing its spending through other entities, Right to Rise Policy Solutions kept the public from tracing the ads back to groups supporting Bush, even though documents that are now public show it was behind the spending.

Right to Rise Policy Solutions is organized as a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, meaning it can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its donors to the public. Though it is not supposed to have politics as its primary purpose, groups like it can and do spend heavily on elections and other political advocacy, which is why such groups are often referred to as “dark money” groups.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, New Hampshire primary voters received mailers attacking Marco Rubio and John Kasich from a mysterious group, America Needs Leadership. Journalists identified the group as a section 501(c)(4) and connected it to Chris Christie through its leadership. The name of the group was similar to a pro-Christie super PAC, America Leads, suggesting it may not have been trying to hide the connection in the first place.

But a tax document for Right to Rise Policy Solutions shows that it provided almost all of America Needs Leadership’s funding.

Right to Rise Policy Solutions contributed $500,000 to America Needs Leadership in 2016, accounting for almost ninety percent of its funding during the 2016 election cycle. According to America Needs Leadership’s tax return, the group spent $508,634 on “direct mail,” apparently referring to the Rubio and Kasich attack mailers.

Right to Rise Policy Solutions may have also secretly funded spending against a third of Bush’s opponents in the primary. The group gave $155,000 to American Policy Coalition, another section 501(c)(4) nonprofit that doesn’t reveal its donors, during 2016. In January 2016, that group contributed $127,000 to a super PAC, Americans United for Values, that spent roughly the same amount on political ads opposing Ted Cruz within days of American Policy Coalition’s contributions.  

Right to Rise Policy Solutions was established by a former Bush staffer in 2015. That year, it took in more than $4 million in receipts. The FEC’s conclusion that the pro-Bush super PAC was illegally funded shows the danger related to secretly-funded groups that can spend money on politics, and the fact that Right to Rise Policy Solutions enacted a complex scheme to hide its political involvement only makes these concerns worse.

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