The Federal Elections Commission on Monday imposed a $350,000 fine in a campaign finance investigation involving longtime Missouri political operatives.
The $350,000 fine settles an investigation into whether the American Conservative Union, a nonprofit best known for organizing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, acted illegally as conduit to pass a $1.7 million donation to Now or Never PAC, a super PAC tied to the Missouri political consulting firm of Jeff Roe.
Neither Roe nor his firm was named in the complaint.
The donation in question took place in late 2012, when the American Conservative Union was run by veteran Missouri political strategist Gregg Keller. And the treasurer of Now or Never PAC is James Thomas III, a Kansas City lawyer who has ties to Roe and serves in a similar role with numerous state-level PACs in Missouri.
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Neither Keller, Roe nor Thomas could be reached for comment.
“This is one of the clearest cases we’ve seen of laundering money through a dark-money nonprofit to conceal the source of a political contribution,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The group filed the 2015 complaint that jump-started the FEC investigation.
“Given the egregious facts,” Bookbinder said, “even the often dysfunctional FEC had no choice but to act.”
The fine applies to three entities: American Conservative Union, Now or Never PAC and a Delaware-based company called Government Integrity LLC. Each denies any wrongdoing.
Government Integrity reportedly received a $2.5 million donation on Oct. 31, 2012.
Later that same day, it donated $1.8 million to the American Conservative Union, which immediately gave $1.7 million to Now or Never PAC.
In emails acquired by the FEC, the American Conservative Union’s then-national finance director admitted that the group got paid $90,000 for its role as a conduit for the donation. It was also revealed that Thomas served as an attorney for Government Integrity LLC when the donations took place.
Federal law prohibits any person from making a contribution in the name of another person, knowingly permitting his or her name to be used to effect such a contribution, or knowingly accepting such a contribution.
Now or Never PAC was formed in 2012 to boost Sarah Steelman’s unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri. It later supported the eventual GOP nominee, Todd Akin, who was defeated by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Now or Never also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2014 attacking U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican.
The FEC determined probable cause exists to conclude Thomas “knowingly accepted a contribution in the name of another and misreported that contribution,” and “knowingly assisted in the making of a contribution in the name of another.”
Among the Missouri PACs that currently employ Thomas as treasurer are Missourians for Worker Freedom, which was established to defend the state’s right-to-work law; Missouri Alliance for Freedom-Green River PAC, which just spent $110,000 on TV ads attacking the Democrat in a Jackson County state Senate race; and several other PACs associated with state Senate races all over Missouri.
The use of multiple organizations to hide the source of campaign donations — known as “dark money” — has become more prevalent in the years since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political expenditures by nonprofits, corporations, labor unions and other associations.
The biggest example in Missouri took place last year when Gov. Eric Greitens benefited from a $1.9 million donation from a federal PAC called SEALs for Truth.
All of SEALs for Truth’s money came from a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit called the American Policy Coalition Inc. Because it’s a nonprofit, it is not required to disclose its donors. Thus, where the money actually came from will likely never be known.
Since then, Greitens’ political team founded a nonprofit of its own called A New Missouri Inc.
The group has been heavily involved in Missouri politics this year, mostly focused on boosting Greitens. But this summer it also donated $250,000 to Missourians for Worker Freedom, one of the PACs that employs Thomas.