Do As I Do
Senator Clean’s Dirty Money
Russ Feingold made his name regulating how campaigns are funded, so why does his PAC seems to be skirting the rules?
A politician whose name is synonymous with campaign finance reform has some questions to answer about his own accounts.
After five years out of office former Senator Russ Feingold, who co-authored the campaign finance regulations everyone complains about, is mounting a comeback—and his chances look good.
Incumbent Republican Ron Johnson is vulnerable, Feingold has great name ID in Wisconsin, and a Marquette poll from September shows him with an eye-popping 14-point lead over Johnson. On top of that, Feingold has national support thanks to his progressive-icon status. Elizabeth Warren visited the state last month to campaign for him, and his efforts to push for campaign finance reform legislation in the Senate still excite many liberal voters.
One hiccup, though: The candidate’s relationship with a political action committee that he founded between campaigns has drawn significant scrutiny in his home state.
His latest financial disclosure forms show that more than half of the people on payroll for his Senate campaign previously worked for the PAC—undergirding the charge that it may have had more to do with securing his political future than with furthering progressive ideals.
Feingold started the Progressives United PAC after losing his reelection bid to Johnson in 2010. The organization billed itself as a group dedicated to helping elect progressive candidates and push their favorite causes, and it solicited small-dollar contributions from progressive activists around the country to that end.
But here’s the thing: It spent a whole bunch of the money it raised on paying the salaries of Feingold’s former Senate staffers, and not a ton on actually helping progressive candidates. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, its mid-year report in 2015 showed it had spent just 5 percent of its receipts on helping Feingold’s fellow Dems.
Campaign finance reform is central to Feingold’s legacy. In 2002, he teamed with Sen. John McCain to pass legislation that overhauled the campaign finance system. The legislation, as introduced, had harsh words for political action committees, or PACs. The bill said taking PAC money “created the perception that candidates are beholden to special interests, and leave candidates open to charges of undue influence” and “undermined public confidence in the senate as an institution.”
None of Feingold’s PAC activities are illegal or even necessarily unethical. But it shows a departure from his historic rhetoric on money in politics.
For example, the latest quarterly report from Feingold’s Senate campaign shows that he culled most of his team from the PAC; staffers whose jobs disappeared when he lost to Johnson in 2010 went to work for the PAC, then jumped back on board with Feingold when he launched his 2016 campaign. Of the 14 people who got payroll checks from Feingold’s campaign in the third quarter of 2015, eight previously worked for the Progressives United PAC.
Josh Orton and Nancy Mitchell Ballweg—both on board with Feingold’s campaign—got paid by the Progressives United PAC through March of this year, according to its disclosure forms. Lenee Kruse, who now works on Feingold’s campaign team, was on salary with the PAC as recently as February. Christopher Louderback, Erin Wagner, and Cole Leystra also made the PAC-to-campaign jump. Campaign staffers Jeremy Tollefson and Mary Irvine, meanwhile, both worked on the PAC and then on Feingold’s team at the State Department (where he served as Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of Congo).
So while Feingold’s former and future campaign staffers were getting paid, the progressive campaigns his PAC purported to boost didn’t actually get a ton of money. Feingold’s team told reporter Daniel Bice that the PAC had an a-typical structure set up whereby it encouraged its supporters to back progressive candidates—thus helping those candidates raise money without actually contributing to them.
“Feingold’s PAC still spent more than $3.50 for every $1 that a candidate received in direct or indirect funding over the past four years,” Bice wrote.
“The campaign claimed responsibility for helping channel $1.6 million to federal candidates through ActBlue, including $700,000 to ones running in Wisconsin,” Bice continued. “If accurate, that would mean Feingold’s PAC spent $7.1 million to generate a little less than $2 million in direct and indirect financial support for federal candidates and political parties.”
On top of that, some of the candidates that the PAC did back weren’t exactly progressive stalwarts, as Wisconsin Public Radio detailed. The group gave $5,000 to the North Dakota Senate campaign of Democratic moderate Heidi Heitkamp, who opposed background checks for gun purchases and backs construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The PAC also contributed $5,392 to now-former Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, another moderate Democrat who supported Arctic drilling. And it forked over $2,500 to then-Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who was one of the chamber’s most conservative Democrats before he lost his 2014 reelection bid. That said, the PAC also gave $6,000 to Bernie Sanders and $7,500 to progressive Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison (who, incidentally, just endorsed Sanders’s presidential bid).
Feingold’s inter-campaign activities have raised some watchdogs’ eyebrows.
“It seems to run counter to what he has talked about in the past in terms of being up front and clear about what you’re doing,” said Larry Noble, the senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. “It’s not clear whether he plans to use the PAC for support of his campaign, but some of the things he seems to have done are old tricks, like putting people on your PAC payroll while you’re not in office. Also it’s unclear what he’s actually doing with all that money. He says he’s supporting other candidates but he’s not making contributions.”
“What I’m most bothered by is it’s not clear what he’s doing,” Noble added. “Raising money for a progressive PAC and then spending it on staff and administrative expenses is not the most upfront way of doing business.”
And in the Badger State, his political opponents haven’t been shy about criticizing his move.
“It’s no surprise to see a Washington political insider say one thing and then come back to Wisconsin and do the complete opposite,” said Nick Novak, spokesman for the conservative MacIver Institute. “I would even venture to say that it’s a bit hypocritical of Russ Feingold to set up this type of slush fund for his campaign staff-in-waiting when he spent the better part of two decades in D.C. trying to restrict this type of activity.”
And Collin Roth, who edits RightWisconsin.com, said Feingold’s relationship with the PAC gives Republicans a big opening.
“He’s always had a reputation as Mr Clean,” Roth said, “and for him to be basically—during the time when he was out of office—putting his campaign staff on a payroll of a PAC that really didn’t do anything looks an awful lot like the type of thing that he would have criticized.”
That said, the candidate—whose team didn’t respond to a request for comment on the PAC’s activity—has defenders.
“I don’t think this is a serious issue,” said Matt Rothschild, who heads the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “His PAC was doing important work in drawing attention to one of the biggest issues facing the country—an issue that Russ Feingold himself cares about as a vital issue—and that issue, of course, is campaign finance reform and that’s what his PAC was working on, so I don’t see that there’s a problem here.”