- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A super-PAC set up Tuesday to support presidential candidate Herman Cain could be violating the law because the name it uses is so similar to that of a candidate, an election law expert said Wednesday.

The new committee marks the boldest association yet between supposedly independent groups, which can accept unlimited donations but may not coordinate with candidates, and the candidates themselves.

In the minutes before the Republican debate Tuesday, many tea party voters got an email reading: “A new poll showed that if the election were held today, Herman would beat Barack Obama. Will you help him today?” The mailing list’s introduction says, “Please read this special message from our friend, Americans for Herman Cain.”

Laws state that “in the case of any political committee which is not an authorized committee, such political committee shall not include the name of any candidate in its name.”

“They can’t be a super-PAC and go around with his name. It sounds like it is a candidate committee,” said Donald J. Simon, general counsel for Democracy 21, a nonprofit group that advocates for clean elections.

Federal Elections Commission (FEC) records don’t show the formation of the group, and an FEC official said if the agency has received a statement of organization, it has yet to be processed.

Jordan Gehrke, the group’s campaign director, said the official paperwork will register it as the 9-9-9 Fund, though it will do business as Americans for Herman Cain.

“If that’s the name they’re using in public, I don’t think they’ve solved their problem. That’s not how they’re holding themselves out,” said Mr. Simon.

The group’s logo, a tiny “Americans for” followed by a large “Herman Cain for President” in red, white and blue, is indistinguishable from a typical candidate’s banner.

A website registered last Thursday, AmericansForHermanCain.com, says: “Americans for Herman Cain has established a non-connected political committee that is established and registered with the Federal Election Commission. The committee supports the Federal candidacy of Herman Cain for President.”

Citizens can donate up to $2,500 to a candidate in the general election, but outside groups can accept and spend funds in any amount.

The types of committees, which arose after a pair of Supreme Court decisions including Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission,are expected to play a major role in the presidential race, and their separation from candidate campaigns themselves has gradually eroded. A top official of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney left the campaign to head an ostensibly independent super-PAC, Restore Our Future.

On the other hand, the Cain super-PAC could result in confusion for contributors. While super-PACs generally collect large contributions from the wealthy, Mr. Cain has so far relied almost exclusively on small donors.

Mr. Gehrke, a political fundraiser with a track record of raising money for losing candidates, most of which has gone to his direct-mail companies, said he had never met nor spoken to Mr. Cain.

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