- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A super PAC created to support Republican Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s latest bid for U.S. Senate is getting the bulk of its money from an advocacy group not required to disclose its donors, an Associated Press review has found.

The anonymity allowed by the arrangement signals Ohio will see another expensive and nasty faceoff as Mandel seeks to unseat Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown next year. Brown defeated Mandel in 2012 in one of the nation’s costliest and hardest-fought Senate campaign battles.

Federal campaign records show Ohio Freedom Fund, a super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on a candidate’s behalf, was created to help elect Mandel in November. Its primary contributor is Citizens for a Working America, a nonprofit not subject to campaign finance disclosures.

According to IRS filings, the nonprofit is led by Joel Riter, a former Mandel aide and longtime political ally. Riter has moved between government and political positions for Mandel for years.

The nonprofit Riter leads has given $300,000 of the $320,000 the super PAC has reported raising so far. Had donors given the $300,000 directly to Ohio Freedom Fund, their identities would be public.

Citizens for a Working America lists its mission as promoting “sound economic policy” through citizen-led initiatives and referendums, working in the public policy arena and providing educational services to the public. Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said it’s rare for such an advocacy group, which must keep its political spending below 51 percent, to give so much to a political purpose.

Neither organization could immediately be reached for comment. A message was sent through the Ohio Freedom Fund’s website. The PAC’s office in Washington, D.C., has no business listing.

Citizens for a Working America provided a contact number to the government that hasn’t been set up to receive calls. A message for Riter was left with a relative.

Contributions that nonprofit advocacy groups spend for political purposes not subject to campaign finance disclosures are referred to as dark money. Use of dark money has risen since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which removed caps on how much corporations, unions and interest groups can spend on advocacy communications that don’t specifically call for the election or defeat of candidates.

Required federal filings shed only partial light on how money to such groups is flowing.

Citizens for a Working America was formed in 2011, according to records reviewed by the AP. It was founded by veteran political consultant Norman Cummings, who once led political operations for the Republican National Committee and is a longtime political consultant and ally to Ohio Republican Ken Blackwell.

In 2012, when Cummings still was in charge, the group reported accepting $600,000 in cash from a “substantial contributor.” It passed on that same sum to the Government Integrity Fund, another dark money group led at the time by Riter. That represented about half the $1.3 million the Government Integrity Fund spent against Brown and for Mandel during the 2012 election. Who it came from is unknown.

The new pro-Mandel super PAC, Ohio Freedom Fund, was created on Nov. 14, as Mandel was appearing, as state treasurer, in a series of ads promoting a new investment program for families with special needs children called STABLE.

The ads were paid for by $1.8 million in public money. Responding to criticism the ads were self-promotional, Mandel’s state office said the ads were taped and aired before Mandel was a candidate and were unrelated to politics. His spokesman argued his presence in the spots helped viewers trust the program’s integrity.

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