In this blog, I will explore what laws Out of Town PACs have to comply with when they operate independently of a candidate. I will also tell the residents of Herndon how high rollers in Virginia in general are skirting donor reporting requirements and an easy way you can smoke them out. Dave Kirby has already outlined the requirements for the candidates in a separate blog.
Out of Town PACs
A PAC that operates independently of a candidate has to comply with a separate set of Virginia code sections that are much more restrictive than the laws which apply to the candidates. Under Virginia’s Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, an “independent expenditure” is one that advocates the election, or defeat, of a clearly identified candidate and is made without the authorization of a candidate. In other words, the candidate who benefits from the expenditure can’t coordinate with the PAC for expenditure to be truly independent. Coordination with a candidate would require the expenditure to be listed as a donation on the candidate’s campaign report.
Any PAC that has independent expenditures of more than $200.00 in our Town election must file a report with the Fairfax County Board of Elections within 24 hours of distributing campaign literature or spending the money to pay for the campaign literature, whichever comes first. In addition, the campaign literature distributed must have the following two statements printed on it:
“Paid for by [Out of Town PAC]” and “Not authorized by a candidate.”
Any PAC making telephone calls to support or oppose a candidate must disclose, during the call, the name of PAC and its Virginia State Board of Elections registration number. Failure to do so can result in fines of up to $2,500 per occurrence. In addition, it is illegal for any PAC making telephone calls to intentionally modify the caller identification information for the purpose of misleading the recipient as to the identity of the caller.
Now, on to the high rollers.
In the past few years, high rollers have increasingly used third parties to mask donations. In other words, a millionaire who doesn’t think it would benefit the candidate to be listed as the actual donor will use a third party, almost always a PAC, to funnel the donation to the candidate. I have seen a turnaround time as quick as a couple of days between the time the third party PAC receives the money from the actual donor and the contribution to the candidate is made by the PAC. In order to follow the money trail, you need to go to www.vpap.org. (This website is run by an independent organization, the Virginia Public Access Project, which has provided invaluable service to the residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia.)
Go to the search box in the upper right hand corner of the website and type in the name of a candidate. Usually several different names come up for one reason or another. Click on the name of the candidate. You are then taken to a page relating to the last election year, although you can choose other election years if you want. Click on “Money In.” The largest donors appear at the top. Click on one of those. You can then click on the link for the donor to find out who has given it money and when.
Obviously, you can’t tell from the available information if there was an agreement between the millionaire and the PAC to contribute the money to a specific candidate but there’s a pretty good chance there is a tacit agreement if a PAC gets a $100,000 donation from one person (or entity) and days later donates $98,000 to a candidate. The thing to do with the information is to either (1) confront the candidate or (2) try to interest the media. (Good luck on Option 2.) So you can say during a question and answer session at a debate, “Mr. Nixon, were you aware that Boss Tweed gave $100,000 to the Herndon Hummingbird Society which ten minutes later gave you $98,000?” Typically, the response from the candidate will be “No, I was not aware of that. I presumed the donation was the result of my work on behalf of hummingbirds everywhere.”
There is nothing illegal in all of this unless the candidate knows of the third party agreement and doesn’t report the donation properly. However, you as an individual might make the difference in an election if you can point out an obvious ruse to hide a donation.
In my next blog, I will examine the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and how a voluntary multi-state agreement ended up with mandatory requirements for the Town of Herndon. I have decided to call the blog “Paved With Good Intentions.”