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GOP targets Feingold’s state PAC over spending
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 14, 2016
Progressives United for Wisconsin was a political action committee set up by former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and his allies to help liberal candidates and causes during the state’s recall fervor.
“Progressives United, the advocacy group Feingold founded nearly three years ago, recently announced it was forming a Wisconsin political action committee (PAC) aimed at defeating Gov. Scott Walker, returning the state Senate to Democratic control, supporting ‘future progressive leaders’ and promoting progressive policy,” the group announced in 2013.
But records show that only about 20% of the funds raised by the PAC went directly to the Democratic candidates in Wisconsin. A larger chunk went to Progressives United Inc., a political nonprofit that was the sponsoring organization for the state PAC, for rent and staff salaries.
State Republicans suggested Friday that Feingold’s team set up the state PAC to serve as a funding source for the nonprofit, which was led by former Feingold aides in the period between his 2010 defeat to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and his current campaign. Feingold, a Democrat, and Johnson, a Republican, face off again next month.
“It’s a bird, it’s a plane — Oh, wait, it’s just Senator Feingold saying one thing and doing another — this time not only ripping off Wisconsinites but directly misleading them into donating money,” said state GOP spokesman Pat Garrett.
Feingold officials dismissed the criticism.
They said it is perfectly legitimate for one political organization to reimburse another for items such as office space, donor lists or staff research.
In this case, for instance, Progressives United for Wisconsin did not initially have its own office, so it paid the sponsoring organization for rent.
“This is 100% appropriate,” said Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney for Progressives United Inc.
What’s more, Wittenwyler said, Feingold officials could have hidden the source of funding for the state PAC’s expenses by simply having the nonprofit pick them up. Under current law, political nonprofits such as Progressives United Inc. do not have to disclose their donors.
But Wittenwyler said Feingold officials provided greater transparency on their funding sources by having the state PAC reimburse the political nonprofit for various items.
“In a way, it is unusual,” said Wittenwyler, who is based in Madison. “It goes back to Russ being too honest. What he does is use PAC money that would otherwise be spent on hard-money political activity and instead has it pay for its own expenses.”
Garrett countered, “I am sure that makes the passionate supporters, who got tricked into giving their hard-earned money to Feingold and his political slush fund, feel so much better.”
The Journal Sentinel reported last year that two Feingold groups — Progressives United Inc. and Progressives United PAC, his national political arm — poured the bulk of their funds into raising money. Another sizable chunk went to pay salaries or consulting fees for Feingold, his top aide and eight former campaign and Senate staffers.
In all, Progressives United PAC gave only 5% of its funds, or $355,000, directly to federal candidates and political parties. Feingold’s team says it helped channel another $1.6million through ActBlue to liberals running for office.
In addition, many of the staffers at those two organizations ended up moving to Feingold’s current campaign, which is also using several of the same vendors as the Progressives United groups.
Feingold, who spent three terms in Washington, D.C., said direct donations represented only a small part of what Progressives United set out to do. The grass-roots organization was also involved in advocacy work aimed at overturning, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on campaign finance issues.
According to state records, Progressives United in Wisconsin raised $130,390 during the state’s 2014 election cycle. Of that, it gave $24,663 to Wisconsin candidates — or slightly less than 20% of all the money it collected.
The state PAC paid another $30,664 to Progressives United Inc. as reimbursement for various items — or slightly less than a quarter of the funds it raised during that period. Most of the payments were for staff wages, meaning Progressives United in Wisconsin was reimbursing its sponsoring organization for work done by Progressives United Inc. on behalf of the state PAC.
The rest of the state PAC’s funds were spent on such items as utilities, consulting fees, direct mail, printing and other administrative costs.