You've seen the ads, luring you to a website if you support Col. Allen West or another conservative running for office. They're flashy and loud and all over the Internet. But where is the money going? Many political activists find themselves frustrated at putting in long hours working unpaid on campaigns, while a few consultants at the top of the food chain are raking in disproportionately big bucks.
The Center for Public Integrity, which has been investigating the spending habits of 300 super PACs and hybrid PACs, concluded, "Many of these committees operated as piggy banks for golf expenses and steakhouse soirees or vehicles for filling the bank accounts of consulting firms and super PAC executives."
Some of the candidates running for office are getting annoyed at having their persona used to raise money that is not going to them. The PACs are creating a perception that the candidate is part of the fundraising effort, when in reality, the candidate has nothing to do with it and in fact is prohibited by law from coordinating with independent PACs.
Dan Backer is the treasurer of about 40 political hybrid PACs that have popped up recently. According to The Washington Post, he is an attorney who came up with the concept of hybrid PACs and was the lead attorney responsible for getting them legalized. His PACs, which include the Stop Hillary PAC, have raised millions of dollars, but very little of it has gone to benefit candidates.
A look at the Stop Hillary PAC's financial reports reveals that a hefty amount of the money raised is going to consultants. During the initial part of the 2014 election cycle, the PAC raised $250,500. Of that amount, $151,413 went to consultants. An organization called Campaign Solutions has received $144,435, and another one, Strategic Fundraising, received $141,618.
As of May, Stop Hillary PAC had raised half a million dollars, more than any other anti-Hillary PAC.
Meanwhile, its contributions to candidates have been measly. According to The Washington Post, the PAC has only given $25 each to five federal candidates (the maximum allowed contribution to a federal candidate is $5,000 in the primary and $5,000 in the general election).
Several Tea Party PACs have also paid out lavish amounts to consultants - including to family members and Tea Party leaders. The Tea Party Leadership Fund, where Backer is also a treasurer, paid eight consulting firms a quarter of a million dollars.
The People's Majority super PAC, which describes itself as motivating conservatives to get to the polls, spent nearly $10,000 on meals last year, including several large checks at fancy restaurants.
Some of the money raised by these groups is going to fundraising and direct mail - which is at least better than into the pockets of consultants. But if the money raised is just going into more fundraising, at some point the candidates will run out of time for assistance.
These 300 super PACs emerged after 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations and unions could spend unlimited funds on independent expenditures (not the same as giving directly to a candidate).
This problem is not exclusive to the right; there are plenty of PACs on the left with questionable expenses. The most outrageous one so far might be Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control PAC that spent $6,900 at a lavish hotel in France. Their unbelievable justification posted on Facebook: "American citizens living abroad care deeply about reducing gun violence and are eager to support efforts aimed at having more responsible gun laws."
Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, gets to the root of the problem, "People who are raising the money are paying themselves with these funds. I don't think that's appropriate," he said. His organization is studying the impact of super PACs.
Paul S. Ryan, of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, warns people, "My standard sound-bite advice is 'donor beware,' when giving to any political action committee."
There is an easy solution, according to Congressman David Schweikert (R-Ariz). Copy what charities do. An independent umbrella organization similar to Charity Navigator or Charity Checker should be set up to rate and review the Super PACs and hybrid PACs. If there is a millionaire out there looking for a philanthropic project to take on, now is the time to jump in first and become the expert here. Until then, voters are probably better off donating directly to candidates.