3 reasons why Real PAC deserves a closer look
By JIM WALLS
Dec. 9, 2014 — A complaint against a political committee supporting Gov. Nathan Deal may be dismissed without investigation tomorrow by the state ethics commission.
Real PAC, when I first reported about it in July 2013, had raised more than $327,000 that it didn’t disclose to either state or federal authorities. It had registered with the IRS as a “527” political organization that would file disclosures locally rather than with the feds; but, under Georgia’s lenient campaign finance law, Real PAC contended it didn’t have to file any in Georgia either.
Several nationally recognized experts told me 527 committees cannot avoid disclosing their finances altogether. After my article appeared, Real PAC filed tax returns that it had also neglected to submit and four new Georgia disclosures reporting $970,000 in donations.
Now, though, Real PAC claims those disclosures were not required by Georgia law. The pending complaint alleging Real PAC violated requirements for disclosure and independence is misguided and frivolous, its attorney, Randy Evans, wrote in a letter to the commission.
Real PAC, headed by Deal’s longtime friend Jim Walters and business partner Ken Cronan, doesn’t have to be independent, Evans added. He said the complaint may have mistaken Real PAC for a so-called independent committee, which would have to avoid coordinating its activity with a candidate’s, but Georgia law contains no such requirement for political action committees.
A review of campaign filings and other public documents, however, suggests the issue is not so clear-cut. A few points to consider:
One: Deal’s campaign vendors helped to set up Real PAC. Two political consultants and a lawyer for Deal’s campaign handled the initial paperwork for Real PAC. Jason Williams, founder of The Stoneridge Group, registered Real PAC’s web domain in April 2011 on the same day that attorney Ben Vinson reserved its corporate name with the Georgia Secretary of State. Rick Thompson, former executive secretary of the ethics commission, filed Real PAC’s first financial disclosure with the commission in July 2011.
Real PAC, which had raised no money, did not report paying for those services. At the time, though, Deal’s campaign was writing checks to all three vendors. Deal paid $468 to Stoneridge in May and June 2011 for “consultant – website”; more than $62,000 to Vinson’s firm, McKenna Long Aldridge, which was defending the campaign against several ethics complaints, in February and May 2011; and $4,500 a month to Thompson. (Thompson told me last week that Deal’s campaign never paid him for work involving Real PAC.)
Two: Real PAC shared its mailing list with Deal’s campaign. Since the fall of 2012, Real PAC’s website has displayed no content other than a form to enter contact information and “join the fight.” I signed up in 2013 as I was researching Real PAC but never received any communication from the group. Within a few weeks, though, Deal’s campaign invited me to a $20-a-plate fund-raiser at Lake Lanier — the first of a half-dozen email pitches to donate to his re-election campaign.
Wondering whether there was a connection, I contacted a friend who agreed to sign herself and her husband up with Real PAC. They had the same experience: nary a peep from Real PAC but multiple requests for money from Nathan Deal. It appears that “joining the fight” with Real PAC simply added us to the governor’s fund-raising list, hardly the action of an independent entity.
Real PAC’s lawyer, as noted above, contends it doesn’t have to be independent. Which brings us to …
Three: Real PAC may not really be a PAC. It registered in Georgia as a political action committee in 2011 but doesn’t fit the definition in state law: an organization that contributes money to candidates for public office.
Real PAC has never reported making a campaign donation. It hosted a luncheon for Deal at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where delegates could meet the governor and have their picture taken with him. Its website prominently features a photo of Gov. and Mrs. Deal standing before a roomful of supporters with campaign signs. And, in 2013, it produced a handful of 15- and 30-second videos — still viewable on YouTube — promoting Deal’s leadership on job creation, education and the budget.
Those activities edge closer to the definition of an independent committee — one that spends money to promote or oppose a candidate or to affect the outcome of an election. PACs and independent committees in Georgia operate under different disclosure rules. PACs don’t have to disclose anything unless they make more than $25,000 in campaign donations in a year. Independent committees, though, must file disclosures at specified intervals regardless of the amount.
But maybe Real PAC is neither a PAC nor an independent committee. After all, it did not appear to mention a specific election while promoting Deal. Real PAC could just be an unregulated organization run by the governor’s friends, raising money from his campaign donors and arguing that it doesn’t have to say how it spends the money.
Real PAC renewed its corporate registration in May after reporting a bank balance of just $841 in January. Its account could be much larger, though, if Deal follows the precedent set by former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Perdue transferred all his remaining campaign money — more than $789,000 — into Perdue PAC in June 2007. The PAC filed regular disclosures of its finances for a while but nothing since 2010, when it reported $118,000 cash on hand. It’s anybody’s guess where that money is now or how it was spent.
Deals campaign, at last report on Oct. 25, had more than $1.1 million on hand. His final disclosure for the 2014 election is due next month.