An independent group raising money in the name of Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has close ties to operatives with a history of enriching themselves by drawing money from conservative donors that goes largely to the fundraisers and not the campaigns.
A collection of political professionals in a downtown Washington suite has perfected the art of aligning itself with Washington outsiders with poorly run campaigns and raising large amounts, which are then paid primarily to direct-mail and consulting firms they control. The donors, most commonly retirees, are often unaware of exactly to whom they are giving.
Now, they are sending solicitations that look like official Herman Cain materials, but which fine print shows to be from an independent group.
Despite a low profile, about 45 candidates and committees have paid $32 million to groups associated with Scott Mackenzie and Jordan Gehrke for fundraising and financial-compliance services in recent years, including a direct-mail firm called Base Connect, of which Mr. Gehrke is a former director, and several related entities with the same address.
This month, the two men launched Americans for Herman Cain, a committee seeking donations to ensure the election of the former business executive.
The operation typically works something like this: Reliable conservatives receive a letter asking them for a donation to a generic-sounding political committee. The committee pays most of that money to direct-mail companies and donates some to little-known candidates, who appear to be so wowed with the money that they contract with the direct-mail firms responsible for the original letter.
Letters are sent out soliciting money for the candidate, usually successfully, by playing off dislike for the incumbent being challenged. Most of that money is then paid to the direct-mail company, whose executives also control the political action committees. The candidates generally lose their elections and wind up in significant debt.
Mr. Mackenzie has served as treasurer of 42 political committees. The group includes about a dozen generic conservative political action committees (PACs), which raise money to donate later to candidates, as well as candidates who pay him to manage their money.
The PACs include those that sound like official party committees but aren’t, including the Republican National Committee Member Senate Fund, the Tea Party Victory PAC, the American Conservative Union Strikeforce and the Black Republican PAC.
“Freedom Defense Fund is an unaffiliated committee, and I’m the chairman. It’s a conservative, basic PAC. It gives money to political candidates,” said Michael Centanni, chief operating officer of Base Connect - one of the larger PACs for which Mr. Mackenzie is treasurer.
Share a purpose
But each appears to share a purpose: to donate to candidates who are or who will become clients of the direct-mail companies. The Save New York PAC, for example, raised $2.4 million and gave only $38,000 to candidates in 27 donations.
“Suffice it to say, most of the money Scott Mackenzie and Base Connect handle or raise seems to stay inside the Base Connect universe and does not go towards the causes and candidates they claim to advance,” said Drew Ryun, whose conservative PAC, the Madison Project, parted ways with Base Connect in 2008 and now has five times the cash in the bank.