ICYMI: Senator Feingold used dark money group as political slush fund
In case you missed it, Dan Bice with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported yesterday that Senator Russ Feingold, the self-proclaimed champion of campaign finance reform, used his very own dark money group, Progressives United, to pad his own packets and those of his political allies for his campaign-in-waiting.
In light of this troubling news, Ron made the following statement:
“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.”
You can read the full story below:
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.
A top GOP official said it was incredible that Feingold’s fund spent so little helping candidates and so much aiding his personal associates. Feingold is taking on Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, in 2016 to try to win back his old U.S. Senate seat.
“Time and again, Feingold arrogantly says one thing and does another,” said Joe Fadness, executive director of the state Republican Party, suggesting the Wisconsin Democrat’s reform rhetoric doesn’t match his political actions.
Feingold officials countered by saying that his PAC was responsible for raising much more money for the candidates it endorsed through a fundraising portal. While that bolsters the bottom line, it means Feingold’s PAC still spent more than $3.50 for every $1 that a candidate received in direct or indirect funding over the past four years.
In 2011, shortly after losing his Senate seat, Feingold announced that he was setting up his PAC and a political nonprofit called Progressives United Inc. The two groups have raised and spent $10 million over the past four years.
The PAC was created with the aim of “directly and indirectly supporting candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals.”
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.
The Progressives United nonprofit shut down late last year, and the PAC scaled back its activities in May, when the Middleton Democrat announced he would run against Johnson, the Republican who ousted Feingold in 2010.
Feingold declined repeated Journal Sentinel requests for interviews about the operations of his PAC and nonprofit. The campaign, instead, provided a series of statements from Feingold and other Democratic officials touting the work of the two groups.
“The hundreds of thousands of members of Progressives United should be proud of their work to promote net neutrality, fight corporate influence in politics and support core progressive values,” Feingold said in the statement issued by his campaign.
His team suggests that Feingold’s PAC didn’t operate like most other political funds.
Rather than just giving money directly to candidates, Progressives United organized 700,000 liberals from around the country and encouraged them to support and give to endorsed candidates on their own.
For instance, the group is backing U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Progressives United contributed $2,500 to Warren’s campaign on March 30.
But the group also sent its endorsement to its members, encouraging donations to Warren’s campaign through ActBlue, a fundraising portal. Any Warren donations made through ActBlue do not go to Progressives United or pass through the organization.
The campaign claimed responsibility for helping channel $1.6 million to federal candidates through ActBlue, including $700,000 to ones running in Wisconsin.
If accurate, that would mean Feingold’s PAC spent $7.1 million to generate a little less than $2 million in direct and indirect financial support for federal candidates and political parties.
“Progressives United’s public filings clearly show that it … did much more than just a traditional PAC program of direct contributions to political candidates,” said Tom Russell, Feingold’s campaign manager, in another statement issued by the campaign.
By comparison, Johnson’s group, Strategy PAC, has given $277,500 — nearly two-thirds of its dollars — directly to other federal candidates, political parties and campaign committees. Strategy is just a fraction of the size of Feingold’s PAC, having raised $428,900 since 2011.
None of the on-the-record statements provided by the Feingold campaign explained why so much of Progressives United’s expenses went for fundraising, administration and salaries.
Nor did they say whey Feingold’s PAC and nonprofit employed so many of his staffers, some of whom have since returned to his nascent campaign team.
Consider these examples:
■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.
Fadness, the state GOP official, said it is clear that the two Feingold organizations served as a landing pad for his closest aides in between elections.
“It is the ultimate hypocrisy that Mr. Campaign Finance … (took) millions from unsuspecting donors to pay himself and his friends to sit around before launching another desperate campaign,” Fadness said via email.
The PAC paid Feingold $2,500 a month for seven months in 2011 for consulting work on “strategic and organizational management.” He received another $49,500 from his nonprofit — organized as a 501(c)(4) under the tax code — for 10 hours a week of work from 2011 to mid-2013.
He left the nonprofit when he was named by Secretary of State John Kerry as the U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He left that position this year.
Feingold also taught one course at Stanford University this spring, earning $50,000 for the class.
Federal election records show that Feingold’s PAC spent $4.2 million during the 2011-’12 campaign cycle. Of that, it gave 7% to federal candidates, political parties and campaign committees.
The percentage dropped in the 2013-’14 election cycle.
During that two-year span, Feingold’s fund spent $2.5 million, with only 1.6% of its outlay being used on direct support for candidates and parties. In fact, Johnson’s much smaller PAC gave five times as much in direct financial support to candidates and campaigns during the last election cycle.
Feingold’s campaign provided statements from several Democratic candidates praising Progressives United’s work.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, said Feingold’s PAC was important in mobilizing progressives around the country.
“In 2012, Progressives United provided critical support to my campaign for the Senate, through both direct contributions and online communications,” Baldwin said in a statement. Her campaign fund received $9,889 from the Feingold fund.
When he first formed the PAC, Feingold sent out an email attacking both Republicans and Democrats for being beholden to “this culture of corporate influence and corruption.”
His campaign offered no statements from Republicans saying they had benefited from Progressives United’s activities.