Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, raised $7 million in January, topping off its deep reservoir of funds and allowing the group to flood media markets from Sioux City to Sarasota with some $14 million in advertising. Its FEC disclosure on Monday revealed that its extensive effort to elevate Romney and bury the competition relied on a set of donors that runs the gamut from famous heirs and CEOs to the most opaque and controversial kind of corporate interests.
Unlike its competitors, Restore Our Future doesn’t have a lone high-profile benefactor, like Newt Gingrich has in Sheldon Adelson or Rick Santorum has in Foster Friess. But Romney’s super PAC doesn’t lack for big-name individual donors: Hewlett-Packard CEO and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman gave $100,000 in January, as did Alice and Jim Walton of the Walmart fortune. The Marriott brothers, J.W. and Richard, each gave $250,000. (Romney once sat on the company’s board, and his given name Willard was taken from the late John Willard Marriott Sr., the hotel chain’s founder.) Oklahoma mine mogul Joseph Craft gave $500,000, as did hedge funder Bruce Kovner and David Lisonbee, who stared the Utah vitamin company 4Life Research.
In this sense, the disclosure reflects a broader post-Citizens United development. Campaign finance-reform advocates have warned that unlimited donations from corporations, newly empowered to give limitless sums, would have a corrupting influence on American democracy. In many ways, their worst fears have not materialized: the overwhelming majority of donations to super PACs disclosed so far have come from a new class of celebrity super-donor.
This is certainly the case for Romney. Of 25 six-figure donations made to Restore Our Future in January, only two of those came from corporations: $100,000 from the Larry H. Miller Group, which bears the name of the late founder, a Salt Lake City businessman and sports-team owner whose family maintains control of his company; and Select Management Resources, a limited liability corporation registered in Alpharetta, Georgia. The former reflects a trend among corporate donors: a well-known company connected to a well-known executive, in many cases one who has already given to Romney’s presidential campaign directly.
The latter represents a more mysterious group of contributors that could prove controversial for Romney in the long term. Donations from limited liability corporations like Select Management Resources comprise a small fraction of total super PAC gifts, but they come from the kind of organizations that campaign finance reform advocates worry about: difficult to track companies, sometimes with ties to special interests. Last April, a newly registered corporation called W Spann LLC gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, only to dissolve a few weeks later. After a month of scrutiny, Ed Conard, a former managing director of the Romney-founded private equity firm Bain Capital, came forward as the source of the funds. Another entity, F8 LLC, also gave $1 million. It was created by a lawyer with ties to Steve Lund, the former CEO of Nu Skin cosmetics, who had given another $1 million through a company called Eli Publishing Inc. The New York Times tracked $250,000 from Paumanok Partners LLC back to William Laverack Jr., an investor and major Romney supporter.
The biggest LLC checks to Restore Our Future in January came from entities close to one industry: short-term lenders. Select Management Resources LLC, the aforementioned $100,000-donor, is owned by Rod Aycox, the president of LoanMax, a nationwide auto-title lender. Aycox has given heavily to politicians of both parties, including Barack Obama, in the past. RTTTA LLC, a limited liability corporation based in Provo, Utah, that gave $75,000 to Restore Our Future, is registered with J. Todd Rawle, an executive at payday lender Check City and a Romney donor. Another $25,000 check came from REBS Inc., a company based in Las Vegas that shares an address with a Check City store. REBS Inc.’s registered agent is Yahi Peak LLC, which is also the registered agent for Tosh Inc., Check City’s parent company.
These donations make sense. Lenders like LoanMax and Check City top the list of regulation targets for Obama’s new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau , and Select Management Resources spent $600,000 lobbying on consumer finance issues in 2010, the year the legislation that created the CFPB was passed. (Romney has pledged to repeal the law.) They’re also the kind of donations that can be politically tricky if Democrats cast Romney as indebted to lenders accused by consumer advocates of exploiting the poor with massive interest rates. In a 2005 report on how auto title lending is “Driving Borrowers to Financial Ruin,” the Center for Responsible Lending and the Consumer Federation of America noted:
As they have grown in size and number, title lenders have made substantial campaign contributions and have succeeded in forwarding their legislative agenda in a number of states. Title lending giant Rod Aycox, a former partner in Title Loans of America and the creator of Select Management Resources, has contributed to political campaigns throughout the country and was reportedly the largest individual contributor in the 1998 Tennessee state elections. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that Mr. Aycox, his companies, and his close relatives had donated over $300,000 to 130 state and federal candidates and political committees in 10 states since the year 2000.
Other corporate contributors to Restore Our Future include companies with more apparent ties to the usual mix of power players who fill campaign coffers in each party every election cycle.
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One $50,000 check came from Buena Vista Investments LLC, a Seattle company registered to hotelier Gordon Sondland, a major Republican donor who served as a bundler for John McCain in 2008. JTC Holdings LLC, a California corporation registered with real estate executive Justin Chang, an active Republican donor who’s given to Romney and his PAC in the past, donated $20,000. Most corporate donors were not LLCs.
United Refining, an oil company whose chairman and CEO John Catsimatidis has donated to both Democrats and Republicans, gave $25,000. Manchester Financial Group, a San Diego company headed by Doug Manchester, a hotelier and developer who donated money to gather signatures for a gay marriage ban in California, donated $25,000 as well. So did Clinical Medical Services, Inc., a medical equipment provider affiliated with Raul Rodriguez, a donor to the Romney campaign.
Ryan Enterprises Group, an investment firm founded by Chicago businessman Pat Ryan, a longtime political donor who threw George W. Bush a fundraiser at his home in 2004 and has also given directly to Romney this cycle, kicked in $25,000 too, as did Suffolk Construction Company, a contractor based in Massachusetts. Its CEO, John Fish, raised funds for Romney in 2007, only to switch allegiances to Obama after Romney dropped out.
It’s possible that these well-established donors are beginning to shift political giving to their primary companies, or others within the corporations might be behind these contributions. Some may prefer to make such gifts through LLCs to secure an extra layer of distance. Or not. We don’t know. Even though corporate donations account for a small slice of super PAC funds, that uncertainty is part of the post-Citizens United landscape.