The word Plexus refers to a “complex structure containing an intricate network of parts.” That’s a pretty apt description for the loose web of Republican-affiliated secret donors, nonprofit groups and Super PACS that are injecting millions of untraceable dollars into campaigns in Ohio and beyond. The Ohio Dark Money Plexus (ODMP) serves as one of the foremost conduits for dead end disclosure, a way to mask the identity of a political donor by passing their money through a progression of shell entities.
One pattern is for an individual donor to first transfer funds to a Limited Liability Company (LLC). Because LLC’s aren’t subject to campaign finance disclosure laws, the donor effectively becomes anonymous.
The LLC can then transfer to a Super PAC or to a 501 (c) 4 (a nonprofit social welfare organization), which then transfers to a Super PAC. The PACs can then make independent expenditures to favor a specific candidate, which often take the form of attack ads.
One of the most egregious examples of this practice involves a single donor who anonymously funneled $1.71 million dollars to a Super PAC during the 2012 general election. In December 2017, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) sought to release documents to the public which would have revealed the donor’s identity. The donor then took the extraordinary step of filing for a restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the FEC from disclosing their name(s).
In October 2012, the donor transferred $2.5 million dollars to an entity called Government Integrity, LLC (GI, LLC). Next, GI LLC’s lawyer James C. Thomas III transferred $1.8 million from GI LLC to American Conservative Union (ACU), a 501 (c) 4 that is best known for organizing the CPAC Conference (you know the one: Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to headline it in 2017, a few days before he got outed as pedophilia advocate).
The ACU then transferred $1.71 million to the Now or Never PAC, whose treasurer is also the same James C. Thomas III, keeping a $90,000 kickback for itself. Now or Never PAC spent around $5.25 million dollars on ad buys in the month before the 2012 General Election.
Ads in support of “legitimate rape” Todd Akin (R-MO) comprised 19% of the expenditure, and the rest was spent on attack against vulnerable Democrats, including Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. In fact, according to one method of analyzing Now or Never PAC’s expenditures in the run up to election day, 28.4% of the anonymously donated 1.71 million dollars (about $485,000) was spent to attack Sherrod Brown.
Using the same method of analysis (see table), a total of approximately $1.27 million dollars from the Ohio Dark Money Plexus came to bear against Brown in October of 2012 via the Now or Never PAC. In addition to the $1.71 million from the ACU, the PAC received $600,000 from the 501 (c) 4 Americans for Limited Government and another $2.2 Million came from New Models.
GI, LLC has a nonprofit arm called the Government Integrity Fund (GIF) which was incorporated in Columbus, OH in 2011. As recently as 2015, Joel Riter was serving as its director and chairman. Joel Riter is the former legislative and campaign aide to Ohio’s favorite government transparency “advocate” Josh Mandel. In 2011, Riter left the State Treasurer’s Office to join Cap City Solutions, a Columbus-located lobbying firm headed by Tom Norris.
Via a dizzying snarl of connections, Tom Norris can be linked to both New Models and Americans for Limited Government. David Langdon, a West Chester, Ohio based lawyer, can also be connected to New Models, Americans for Limited Government and GIF. Riter, Norris and Langdon are all key players in the Ohio Dark Money Plexus.
The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 prohibits “any person from making a contribution in the name of another person, knowingly permitting his or her name to be used to affect such a contribution, or knowingly accepting such a contribution.” In emails obtained by the FEC, the ACU’s Director of Operations refers to their role in the transaction as a “pass though” and the ACU’s amended tax filing (following an audit) calls the contribution to Now or Never PAC “a `contribution received by the organization and promptly and directly delivered to a separate political organization.” The FEC charges that the $90,000 the ACU retained was its fee for facilitating the illegal transaction.
In a conciliation agreement dated November 3, 2017, the four offending parties (Now or Never PAC, the ACU, GI LLC and James C. Thomas III) reached an agreement to pay a 350,000 fine to the FEC. Paying the fine acknowledges wrongdoing, which indicates the original transfer was used in an unlawful way. In her forceful condemnation of the restraining order the original donor is pursing, FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub quotes from the Citizens United decision, reaffirming that the public interest is served by transparency in campaign finance, so that elected officials can be held accountable for their supporters and voters are able to know whether “elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so called money-interests.”
The influence of dark money has only intensified since the 2012 election cycle. Consider this: the Now or Never PAC did ad buys with different companies, but for Sherrod Brown, they used two specific vendors: Target Enterprises and Something Else Strategies. Both companies are associated with Nick Ayers, Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff and a major kingpin in the world of Republican dark money. Ayers recently suggested that major donors should cut off funds to Republican lawmakers who failed to rally behind President Trump, calling it a “purge”.
According to court filings obtained on January 3, a yet unnamed player, Jeff Roe, Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign manager is also alleged to be involved with the 2012 straw donor scheme. Roe was recently accused of driving Missouri gubernatorial hopeful, Tom Schweich, to commit suicide when he launched a vicious attack against him while a simultaneous whisper campaign about his religion circulated among Missouri politicos.
These dark money players, Ohio-based and otherwise, will be back in 2018 and 2020 and they will be just as vicious. Whose money will they be trafficking? The identity of the 2012 mystery donor could provide an important clue. The public, especially the voters in Ohio who were targeted, deserves to know the identity of the original donor. The case is still open and active in the District Court of the District of Columbia. It remains to be seen whether the FEC will be permitted to release the donor’s identity.