Feingold’s PAC a slush fund

Russ Feingold’s PAC is a political slush fund
Right Wisconsin
Kevin Binversie

Apparently, we were only scratching the surface last month when we questioned why the spending wasn’t adding up for “Progressives United PAC,” a political action committee led by by former Sen. Russ Feingold.

It is figures like this which help highlight that Progressives United wasn’t meant to be a traditional PAC. Instead it could be argued it was only to serve as a jobs plan for ex-Feingold staffers and a campaign-in-waiting.

In fact, this was much closer to the truth than we initially thought. In a bombshell story Monday morning, the Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice dug deeper into the numbers and found that the financials for Progressives United suggests that this wasn’t really a PAC, it was a slush fund for Feingold’s longtime staffers who apparently felt no need to get other political jobs in the four and a half years the former U.S. Senator was out of office.

Many of these Feingold loyalists have been getting salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to Democratic donors.

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold — long a champion of campaign finance reform — founded a political action committee that has given a mere 5% of its income to federal candidates and political parties.

Instead, nearly half of the $7.1 million that Progressives United PAChas spent since 2011 has gone to raising more money for itself, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org. The data also show the group has paid another sizable chunk of money on salaries or consulting fees for Feingold, his top aide and eight former staffers.

So how much money were former Feingold staff – both official Senate and campaign – paid by the PAC? This much:

But campaign records show that Feingold’s PAC did little to help candidates directly, donating a mere $352,008 to federal candidates and political parties since 2011.

Most of the rest of its budget went to overhead.

Fundraising was the top expense, with one direct mail firm, Nexus Direct of Virginia Beach, Va., being paid $2.3 million by the Feingold PAC in the past four years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Feingold and nine of his former campaign and U.S. Senate staffers drew salaries or consulting fees from the PAC, federal election records show. Five of them also spent time on the payroll of Progressives United Inc., the nonprofit. For instance, Mary Irvine — Feingold’s longtime chief of staff — was paid a total of $317,823 by the PAC and nonprofit from February 2011 until July 2013, when she left to take a job joining Feingold at the U.S. State Department. Irvine was listed on federal tax reports as vice president of Progressives United Inc.

Feingold received $77,000 from the two groups, one of which spent $42,609 to buy hundreds of copies of the ex-senator’s latest book, “While America Sleeps.” A Feingold spokesman said the candidate received no royalties from book sales to his PAC under an agreement with his publisher.

The campaign provided a 2011 email from a Feingold aide to Random House saying it should not count books bought by the PAC or nonprofit toward advances or royalties for the ex-senator. The two Feingold groups initially bought 1,000 hardcover and 100 leather-bound copies of his book.

A further breakdown of the salaries finds just exactly how much many of Feingold’s former – and now current – campaign staffers were pulling down during the life of the PAC.

Cole Leystra — Feingold’s campaign comptroller for seven years — was paid $291,112 by Feingold’s PAC and nonprofit since February 2011, the month after Feingold left public office.

Nancy Ballweg — Feingold’s executive assistant at the Senate for 18 years — was paid $169,403 from his PAC since 2011. Her LinkedIn page says Ballweg also worked as a consultant to a Middleton dermatologist during much of this same period.

Christopher Louderback — another veteran Feingold campaign staffer — pulled down $164,389 from the PAC and nonprofit, acting as the treasurer for both groups.

Louderback now is listed as the assistant treasurer for Feingold’s U.S. Senate campaign fund, which was registered with the federal election officials last month.

Federal tax records show Progressives United Inc. raised and spent $2.8 million during its four years in operation. Of that, more than $1.2 million was spent on salaries and $1.3 million on fundraising for the nonprofit.

Those two items made up nearly 90% of the group’s overall budget.

Not surprising, this story has Republicans both in Wisconsin and in Washington sounding the alarm bells about Feingold’s political financial shenanigans. Here’s what the Republican Party of Wisconsin had to say:

“It is the ultimate hypocrisy that Mr. Campaign Finance formed these bogus slush funds to serve as his personal ATM machine, taking millions from unsuspecting donors to pay himself and his friends to sit around before launching another desperate campaign,” said Joe Fadness, Executive Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “Time and again, Feingold arrogantly says one thing and does another – but I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been in Washington too long.”

At best guess, Feingold put at least five former Senate staffers – many of whom lived in the Washington, D.C. metro area – on his PAC’s payroll. As for the one who was a “dermatologist consultant,” a quick search online discovers that “Rodan and Fields Dermatologists” is better known as “Proactiv skin products.” Those familiar with Proactiv, know it for its celebrity endorsements and infomercials, making it a classic multi-level marketing plan akin to such products as Avon, the Pampered Chef, and Amway.

In other words, Ballweg’s “other job” was window dressing. Especially when she was pulling down nearly $170,000 from Progressives United from 2011-2014.

This story would be an embarrassment for any politician. But for Feingold; who is seen as “Mr. Campaign Finance Reform” by friend and foe alike, this takes his political hypocrisy and arrogant ambitions of reclaiming “his” Senate seat back to new, never before seen heights.

UPDATE: The Ron Johnson for Senate campaign has now released its own comment on the Feingold PAC story:

Senator Feingold has become the very thing he used to despise. This kind of hypocrisy is going to disappoint a lot of Wisconsinites — and it should. Senator Feingold has become just like every other career politician in Washington, saying one thing while doing another. He uses a dark money slush fund to pay his political expenses and even pay himself, all while railing against that exact same kind of dark money. After over 30 years as a professional politician, Senator Feingold has become all that is wrong with Washington.