- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2012

Despite sentiment that court rulings in 2010 gave rise to revolutionized super PAC campaign financing, three-quarters of the $86 million in ads this election cycle could have been purchased under a little-noticed, decades-old law.

Contrary to fears about introducing corporate money into politics, the super PACs’ primary funders have been people who — under a decades-old right almost never exercised — were already able to purchase the independent political ads now popularized by the super PACs themselves.

That kind of unusual expenditure, which experts say allows the wealthy to finance original political speech as long as they put their names behind it, is what Lawrence F. DeGeorge, a technology executive whose father earned billions in telecommunications, did, disclosing Friday to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that he bought a $25,000 pro-Mitt Romney billboard in Times Square, as opposed to making a donation to a pro-Romney super PAC.

In recent weeks, Foster Friess, the man who for months single-handedly funded the super PAC that propped up the presidential candidacy of former Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, has also cut out the middleman and personally written checks to radio stations and newspapers.

The right of wealthy people to spend unlimited amounts on political ads has been unquestioned, if unused, since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling. Subtract that money and the biggest beneficiaries of the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC case, which led to super PACs, have been unions and people using new rules permitting corporate money as a way to hide their expenditures from the public eye.

Yet Mr. DeGeorge and Mr. Friess are among only 200 people since 1988 who have acted as human super PACs, daring to put their own names behind political advertisements, an analysis by The Washington Times of FEC records showed.

The fact that the wealthy businessmen now funding independent ads have long been permitted to do so, yet rarely did, indicates an extraordinary desire to remain behind the scenes.

“The thing with individuals buying an ad themselves is you’re putting yourself out there as the person behind it. You’d have to have a message saying, ‘This ad is brought to you by Bob Smith,’” explained Bill Allison, an expert in money in politics at the Sunlight Foundation.

Super PACs were created after courts said that though a person can donate only $2,500 to a politician, and corporations and unions cannot donate at all, any of those can bankroll groups that, on their own, get out a message for or against a candidate. The AFL-CIO labor federation filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Citizens United, but in the time since, the ruling has been painted as a wildly game-changing tool allowing wealthy Republican businessmen to increase their political influence.

Essentially one man

To view it as bestowing new rights across the board, however, is to neglect the people who were functioning as super PACs long before super PACs were cool.

The most well-known among them is George Soros, who in 2004 spent $4 million on Internet ads attacking President Bush, putting his name on them rather than routing the money though an organization, as some Bush supporters did.

Also in the group is school president Barbara Alice Baker, whose 2010 radio ad on behalf of a Utah Republican House candidate included the disclaimer that the candidate “didn’t know about this ad and he didn’t pay for it. I did. My name is Alice, and I’m 79 years old.”

It even includes people making small buys, such as those by Texas real estate developer Michael Short, who spent $9,402 on an ad in the Waco Tribune Herald in 2010 supporting Republican Bill Flores in his successful bid to win a House seat in Texas.

To be sure, especially now that there are no longer rules against spending money collectively, there are disadvantages to wealthy citizens making political speech with their wallet the same way they vote, as individuals with names attached.

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