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Opinion

Beware of Scam PACs in This Crowded Presidential Field

People are pretending to fundraise for political candidates while enriching themselves, argues Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

And Beto makes 18. As of mid-March 2019, eighteen candidates have joined the 2020 presidential race, including President Trump himself. Any of these eighteen individuals or their supporters could set up PACs and super PACs to raise money to get their preferred candidate to the Oval Office. But donors beware. Some unscrupulous people will try to use the cacophony of the multi-candidate field to scam people out of their hard-earned money—a problem known as scam PACs.

Weeks before the 2016 election, FEC Commissioners Ellen L. Weintraub and Ann M. Ravel sent a memo on scam PACs to the Federal Election Commission. “The Commission is being increasingly confronted with issues related to entities colloquially known as ‘Scam PACs,’ political committees that collect political contributions frequently using the name of a candidate, but which spend little to none of the proceeds on political activity benefiting that candidate,” the commissioners wrote. They also noted that a telltale sign of scam PACs is “high operating expenses and/or large disbursements to entities associated with the managers of the PAC.” But in typical fashion, the FEC did not promulgate new rules to prevent or catch scam PACs.

Fraudsters who had been scamming people with bogus charities have moved on to scamming people with bogus PACs, as Politico reported in 2018: “A web of new political action committees raised nearly $6 million in recent month under the guise of supporting police, veterans and cancer research. But nearly all the money has gone to their own vendors and staff, as opposed to those causes – hallmarks of so-called scam PACs.”

On occasion, the people behind scam PACs actually get caught for their frauds. For example, in 2018, the feds arrested two Arizona brothers for making millions through scam PACs who had targeted conservatives with promises to support law enforcement, oppose abortion rights, and encourage smaller government. As Paul Blumenthal reported in the Huffington Post, “The supposed PACs collected $23 million from 2014-2017 and routed the vast majority of the funds through a series of shell companies that either directly enriched the Tierneys or continued the fundraising scheme.” William Tierney, one of the brothers, pleaded guilty in November 2018 and received a two-year sentence on March 15.

But the FEC, which is the first line of defense against scam PACs, has often dismissed complaints raised by candidates that a scam PAC is using their name or likeness to defraud donors, including one by former Congressman Allen West in 2012. Another scam PAC purported to support Sheriff David Clarke for a U.S. Senate run, an office which he was not pursuing. Even TV personality Laura Ingraham has had scam PACs claiming to fundraise for a mythic run for office.

Because scam PACs involve outright fraud, the DOJ also has a role to place policing the worst actors. In 2017, the FBI raided the office of the Strategic Campaign Group, allegedly investigating scam PAC-like behaviors in Maryland. But this effort has not led to any indictments so far.

When scam PACs pretend to raise money for state candidates, they may fall under the jurisdiction of state law. For example, in 2015, a scam PAC called Conservative Strike Force reached a settlement for $85,000 with former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II for using his 2013 gubernatorial run to raise funds that were never delivered to the campaign. Like the Tierney case in Arizona, this Virginia scam PAC was aimed at conservatives. But the next scam could as easily be aimed at liberals or libertarians.

And on top of all the domestic fraudsters, there can also be foreign actors. For example, Russian interference the 2016 election included procuring money from unsuspecting targets who were politically engaged online. According to a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, one way the Russian Internet Research Agency raised money was by selling merchandise to unsuspecting Americans, especially African American voters: “The merchandise strategy… enabled fundraising, brand building, and the collection of addresses and potentially credit card information.”

So, if you decide to donate to one of the eighteen candidates currently running for president (or really any political candidate), do some research before handing over your credit card information. For example, search for the official candidate campaign committee or look for trusted intermediaries like ActBlue (on the left) or Patriot Pass (on the right).  You’ll want to make sure that you are giving to a legitimate campaign instead of a scam artist.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: TEK IMAGE/Getty)