Staffers working on the campaigns of nearly half of the 31 senators who faced election last Tuesday also received funds from political action committees (PACs) connected to the senators during the third quarter of 2016. The payments raise the possibility that the PACs could have subsidized the senators’ campaigns, including some potentially beyond legal limits.
A CREW analysis of Federal Election Commission reports filed by leadership PACs associated with senators up for re-election this year found that staffers from 15 Senate campaigns were also paid by the senator’s leadership PAC, either directly or to a company registered to them. Staffers paid by 13 campaigns received at least one disbursement from the senator’s leadership PAC between July 1, 2016 and September 30, 2016. Companies registered to the staffers of two more senators also received payments during that period. Staffers for six senators also received reimbursements from leadership PACs.
Combined, staffers who were paid by senators’ campaign committees in the third quarter of 2016 received more than $132,000 in direct disbursements from the senators’ leadership PACs over the three-month period. During that time, senators’ campaigns also paid more than $65,000 to limited liability companies (LLCs) connected to campaign staff.
Since it is common in the political world for vendors to work on multiple campaigns in an election cycle, CREW only considered individuals to be campaign staff if they met certain criteria. In particular, individuals were treated as staff in this analysis if they received at least one disbursement from the senators’ campaigns labelled under a payroll category or if they were paid for consulting and external sources, such as news reports, described them as having a position with the campaign or as also being employed as a member of the senator’s Hill staff.
Leadership PACs are typically used to cover expenses that cannot be paid by campaign committees or congressional offices, such as non-campaign, non-official travel. They are often compared to slush funds, as they are loosely regulated and can be used to pay for extravagances. Earlier this year, for instance, the Lexington Herald-Leader found several Kentucky congressmen used their leadership PACs to pay for golf outings, cigars, limos, steak dinners, and Kentucky Derby tickets.
Using PAC funds to pay individuals who also work on campaigns is legal, but only within limits. The staffers need to actually be doing work for the leadership PAC and the PAC can’t be used to cover expenses that would otherwise be paid for by the campaign. Moreover, leadership PACs can only legally contribute $5,000 to any one candidate committee per election cycle, and in-kind contributions in the form of staff time would contribute to that cap.
Identifying overlap between the campaign and the PAC can also be difficult when payments go to private companies associated with staffers, often staffer-owned LLCs. The connections between the staffers and the LLCs can sometimes only be found in obscure corporate filings. Even then, it is hard to know how the money was used after it was paid to the company, especially when the payments are distributed in lump sums and described in campaign finance reports with broad descriptions such as “consulting.”
From the outside, it is difficult to determine exactly what work—and how much of it—staffers are performing for these PACs. But there are some telltale signs. Overall fundraising and spending by a PAC, for instance, is an indicator of general activity and the need for staffers to perform PAC-related work. Senators in uncompetitive races have more freedom to concentrate on the types of activities for which PACs are meant to be used, like raising money for other politicians. Ultimately, however, vague line item descriptions mean that the specifics of a PAC’s work are often inscrutable.
Top PAC Payers
The leadership PAC of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) paid the most to campaign staff, a total of $43,696, including reimbursements. Most of the money went to Douglass Stafford, who received $30,000 for political strategy consulting in the third quarter of 2016. Stafford was listed as a member of the leadership PAC’s payroll until July 2015, when his payments were then switched to consulting. Stafford, who was on the payroll of Sen. Paul’s Senate campaign, served as Sen. Paul’s chief of staff in the Senate until May 2013, and was listed as RAND PAC’s executive director as of January 2016. RANDPAC has also paid LLCs connected to campaign staff. Amanda Weaver, Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign finance director, is on the payroll of Sen. Paul’s campaign, receiving over $10,000 in the third quarter of 2016. Her company, ARW Consulting, received over $8,000 from Sen. Paul’s leadership PAC. Earlier in the 2016 cycle, Weaver was on RAND PAC’s payroll and ARW Consulting received payments from Sen. Paul’s campaign. During the third quarter of 2016, the leadership PAC raised $90,215.86 and handed out $12,500 in contributions to three candidates. Sen. Paul’s seat was considered safe, and he won re-election 57.3 percent to 42.7 percent.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), a member of his party’s leadership and likely the next Senate Minority Leader, comes in second place. His PAC, aptly named Impact, paid four staffers and two consultants common to the PAC and the campaign $29,221, including reimbursements, over that period. In fact, all of the individuals on Impact’s payroll were also campaign staffers. During that time, the PAC raised $204,000 and handed out $20,000 in contributions to four candidates. Sen. Schumer’s Senate seat was considered safe, and he won re-election by 70.4 percent to 27.4 percent.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)’s leadership PAC, Holding Onto Oregon’s Priorities, had the third highest amount of expenditures related to campaign staff: $25,848 in the third quarter of 2016, with $10,848 going directly to campaign staff and $15,000 paid to Blue Heron Consulting for ”strategy/communications.” The company, which was also paid by the campaign, is registered to Susan Michels, who appears to be married to Sen. Wyden’s chief of staff, Jeffrey Michels. The PAC also reimbursed staffers $233. Holding Onto Oregon’s Priorities raised $95,080 over the same period and contributed $40,000 to four campaigns. Sen. Wyden did not face a tough re-election fight, winning by 23 percentage points.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL)’s leadership PAC forked over the most to a company connected to campaign staff, with his Lincoln PAC paying the Endicott Group LLC $25,000 for “PAC fundraising consulting” in the third quarter of 2016. The company is owned by Caryn Eggeratt, a fundraiser for Sen. Kirk, and is also used by a super PAC that supports his campaign. Lincoln PAC raised $35,043 between July and September while contributing $17,500 to four candidates and committees. Sen. Kirk, who lost 54.4 percent to 40.2 percent, was considered the most vulnerable Senate incumbent.
The leadership PAC of Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the GOP Senate leadership, paid $18,595 to staffers who also work on his campaign, the fifth most from an incumbent senator’s PAC. In fact, like Sen. Schumer, all four individuals on his PAC’s payroll are also campaign staff. The PAC, known as Heartland Values PAC, raised $111,495 and contributed $87,500 to 5 candidates and committees over the same period. Sen. Thune won re-election in a safe seat by nearly 44 percentage points,
As Election Day approaches, common sense suggests that PAC work would lessen for campaign staff while more time and effort is spent on the election, particularly for incumbents in competitive races. Ultimately, however, the opaque nature of PAC disclosure means only the candidates and their staff will know for sure how that time was spent.