Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and the super PAC accepting million-dollar contributions to support him are barred by law from coordinating, yet they share many of the same top-level workers, a fact both groups have helped mask by paying high-level aides through companies that appear to exist largely as conduits to avoid disclosure.
Months before a top Romney aide, Steve C. Roche, stopped working for the campaign, a company controlled by Mr. Roche was established and has since been paid $2 million by the super PAC, with a million-dollar check coming just three days after the last money publicly disbursed to him by the campaign, a Washington Times review of campaign expenditure records showed.
Another consulting firm has done hundreds of thousands of dollars of work for both the campaign and the super PAC, with the most recent payment from the campaign coming the same day as the first from the super PAC. Still other companies, some doing work for the campaign and others for the PAC, are based at the same address.
The groups said they have done nothing wrong because staffers are careful not to use anything they learn in working for one group to the other's advantage.
But a watchdog group said both the Romney campaign and the super PAC's practice of using companies to shield payments to people violates campaign-finance law.
Though Mr. Roche was regional finance director for the Romney campaign through the summer, in April a cryptically named limited liability company, Podium Capital Group LLC, was established in Delaware taking steps that hide its creator's identity, incorporation records show. The super PAC disclosed paying $1 million for "fundraising services" to Podium on Aug. 4, listing as its address a post office box in Beverly, Mass.
The super PAC, Restore Our Future, acknowledged to The Times that Podium is "Roche's company."
The Romney campaign says it is careful to follow the law; but a review of the records shows that its interpretation relies on a remarkably strict and hard-to-demonstrate definition of "coordination."
"It seems like this was an overall plan involving both the campaign and the super PAC" that spanned months, said Fred Wertheimer, executive director of Democracy 21, a campaign ethics watchdog, of Mr. Roche's transition. With high-ranking operatives from the campaign heading the independent group, he noted, there was much less need to communicate with current campaign staffers.
Any gap between Mr. Roche's tenure as a campaign official and his super PAC work lasted days at most. Mr. Roche received checks from the campaign as recently as Aug. 1 for "travel reimbursement." But the Romney campaign declined to say when he left, and the exact dates of his compensation are not discernible in campaign records because fundraisers were paid through another company, SJZ LLC, named after Mr. Romney's national finance director, Spencer J. Zwick.
"People hire consulting firms all the time to do campaign work for them, but this appears to be a deliberate effort to mask the actual recipient of the money and therefore circumvent disclosure laws," Mr. Wertheimer said. "It comes down to, is this a real company?"
There is no record of Podium's existence outside of the single Delaware filing. It has no physical address, and it has never done work for any other political group. Mr. Roche did not respond to requests for comment.
It was unclear why high-level operatives with official campaign titles were being paid only indirectly through SJZ, or why, if the campaign contracted with a firm for services, it was separately reimbursing that firm's workers for expenses. Except for some general-election work it did in 2008 after Mr. Romney abandoned his presidential bid, the SJZ entity has not worked for any non-Romney campaign, Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show.
The Times review shows that the Romney super PAC's accounting practices used corporations as conduits for payments instead of named employees. During the campaign, Mr. Romney has said that "corporations are people, my friends."
The carving up of major political operations into ostensibly independent subcontractors had the effect of allowing the campaign and super PAC to provide distance between themselves and those carrying out their work, whether to hide potential coordination or for political reasons — including, Mr. Wertheimer noted, hiding exorbitant compensation to Mr. Roche from donors.
Though Mr. Roche has worked with Mr. Romney since his gubernatorial campaign and serves in perhaps the most important capacity at Restore Our Future, a super PAC official painted his role as that of a distant corporate transaction.
"What I can tell you is, that's Steve Roche's group," said Restore Our Future spokeswoman Brittany Gross. "They raise funds. That's all I know." She disclaimed any other knowledge of the company and added that she did not know how to contact it.
Restore Our Future has held occasional in-person events, but the committee has paid hotels directly for receptions, so those bills are not included in the payments to Mr. Roche's LLC.
Officials such as Ms. Gross appear to be paid through other companies; in Ms. Gross' case, it's Black Rock Group LLC, which is located in the same Alexandria, Va., suite as another company, WWP Strategies, which has been paid nearly $300,000 by the presidential campaign. Black Rock is run by Carl Forti, who was a campaign staffer on Mr. Romney's 2008 presidential bid. The New York Times first noted the shared office arrangement Sunday.
The Romney campaign has paid nearly $3 million to a third company with the same address, Targeted Victory. And both the campaign and the PAC have paid TargetPoint Consulting — also in the same suite — with the last payment from the campaign coming the same day as the first from the super PAC, the review of records showed.
Despite all the crossover, the groups can make a legal argument that the shared operatives don't amount to forbidden coordination because staffers erected a mental barrier between work done for each.
"It comes down to showing they provided material or information from the campaign that was used for ads. How do you do that?"asked Mr. Wertheimer.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.