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.
GRAPHIC: A complex network — The Base Connect universe
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.
The Black Republican PAC gave to Sharron Angle, the white Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Nevada. Mr. Gehrke served as Mrs. Angle’s deputy campaign manager. She raised $28 million from individuals, more than any other candidate, and $7.7 million went to Base Connect groups. The campaign ended in debt.
“Why would it be odd that people who know each other support each other?” Mr. Mackenzie said.
The groups also were paid $1.5 million by the campaign of Rep. Allen West, Florida Republican, the black tea-party freshman who outraised every House member but Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2010 with $6 million in individual contributions. He received 16 donations from Mackenzie-connected PACs, four of which came in the months before he signed on with Base Connect.
Those high-profile candidates are the exceptions.
More than 30 candidates have signed on to raise funds, many of them black and first-time candidates with a seemingly loose grasp on their campaign finances, which are overseen by Mr. Mackenzie. Mr. West was the only Base Connect candidate that did not end the 2010 cycle in debt, an analysis by The Washington Times showed.
William Russell, a write-in candidate running for the House seat of since-deceased Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, raised $8.7 million and paid $4.6 million to the fundraising firms between 2007 and 2010. After he lost, tens of thousands of dollars were distributed from the candidate’s committee to other candidates who were Base Connect clients, an unusual move.
Mr. Gehrke said raising astronomical sums for little-tested candidates, even those not on the ballot, did not bother him.
“Nobody knew who Allen West was at the beginning of the 2010 cycle,” he said.
Mr. Centanni said he had spoken with Mr. Gehrke about the new Cain group, but had not entered into a contract because direct mail typically requires lead time. Mr. Gehrke said the Cain fundraising drive would mainly use other means, such as online contributions.
“We have no role with the Herman Cain super-PAC at this time. Jordan refers clients to us, so he’s not really an employee,” said Mr. Centanni, adding that Mr. Gehrke receives a commission for referrals.
One of the most predatory aspects of the model - soliciting money for obscure candidates from conservatives in far-off districts - doesn’t necessarily apply in the presidential sphere, where any recipient of communications could be a potential Cain voter.
Even if it runs effective vote-getting efforts, it will almost certainly provide a comfortable source of income for Mr. Gehrke, Mr. Mackenzie and the political contractors they hire. The fund, with a logo whose largest words are “Herman Cain for President” - the name of the official campaign - likely will raise money that would have gone to the campaign itself, including from donors who think they’re giving to it.
While other presidential candidates’ aligned super-PACs function as an overflow valve for wealthy contributors who want to give beyond what they may legally contribute, there is little such demand among Cain supporters. Nearly all of his money came from small donors, who can give many more times within the limits of existing law. Those same donors are the typical base for Mr. Gehrke’s and Mr. Mackenzie’s fundraising operations.
Smaller, less-sophisticated donors are most likely to think they are giving to the official Cain campaign.
“The average citizen will assume it’s the candidate doing this message, and it’s not,” said Bill Allison, a money-in-politics analyst at the Sunlight Foundation.