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U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the punk rocker turned Democratic politician from El Paso, vowed to go against "politics as usual" in Washington while spreading the word about his quest to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2018 elections.
O’Rourke, addressing Dallas supporters at a March 2017 campaign kickoff event, provided some detail as to what that means to him. Toward the end of his remarks, he asked for personal campaign donations, adding to cheers and applause: "I’m one of two members of Congress out of 535 that takes no corporate cash, no political action committee money. I don’t want you worried that when I’m taking a vote, making a decision, writing a bill, looking at an amendment, that I’m listening to anyone but you, the people that I want to serve and that I want to represent."
Nobody seeking federal office can legally accept direct corporate or union donations, the Federal Election Commission notes.
Yet political action committees--open to anyone’s contributions or founded and run by individuals working for corporations or affiliated with labor unions, membership organizations or trade associations--routinely fuel campaigns. In the 2016 elections, PACs gave $472.7 million to congressional candidates, according to the campaign finance tracking website OpenSecrets.org run by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. According to the site, PAC donations accounted for 35 percent of campaign funds for House Democrats, 39 percent for House Republicans, 15 percent for Senate Democrats and 27 percent for Senate Republicans.
We inquired into the basis of O’Rourke’s claim to near-uniqueness for not taking PAC money.
By email, O’Rourke replied that he’d revise what he says going forward. "What I should have said," O’Rourke said, "is that there are only two members of Congress who do not take PAC money and who also do not have a leadership PAC (which gives PAC contributions to other members), myself and Ro Khanna," a California Democrat.
In a March 2017 press release, Khanna said he and O’Rourke had introduced legislation barring members of Congress and aspirants from accepting PAC donations. That release grouped Khanna and O’Rourke among six House members who didn’t accept PAC donations in the run-up to the 2016 elections. That count was based, the release said, on a December 2016 breakdown of candidate finance filings posted by Colorado-based CleanSlateNow, which focuses on changing how campaigns are funded.
O’Rourke’s reply to us included a different count attributed to information on the OpenSecrets site. O’Rourke wrote: "There are four members of Congress (based on the Open Secrets website) who did not take PAC money in the last cycle (either to their Congressional campaign or to their leadership PAC if they had one) -- myself, Ro Khanna, John Sarbanes and Francis Rooney. Both Sarbanes and Rooney have PACs themselves that make PAC contributions to other candidates."
Reviewing web posts and records
Information on the OpenSecrets site indicates that into May 2017, Cruz had raised more than $1.9 million from PACs with the contributions accounting for 2 percent of more than $117 million he’d raised starting from his 2012 election to the Senate.
The comparable entry for O’Rourke doesn’t show a zero for his PAC donations. It indicates instead $297,969 in PAC contributions to O’Rourke campaigns, amounting to 5 percent of O’Rourke’s $6.3 million in contributions since 2011, the year before his initial election to the House.
We asked O’Rourke’s campaign about the tallied PAC contributions.
A senior adviser, David Wysong, said by phone that O’Rourke accepted such donations through his first couple of House elections but stopped doing so before seeking his third term in 2016. By email, Wysong provided a document he described as a February 2015 form letter from O’Rourke to possible PAC contributors after which, Wysong said, O’Rourke accepted no PAC donations.
From O’Rourke’s letter: "Starting with this election cycle, I plan to no longer accept PAC contributions. I've made this decision in an effort to focus more of my campaign efforts on bringing new, smaller and local donors into the campaign." Wysong also emailed an example of O'Rourke turning back such such aid--an October 2016 letter from O’Rourke’s campaign manager, Brianna Carmen, returning a donation from the Treasury Employees PAC.
Wysong noted too that according to an FEC summary page about O’Rourke’s Senate finance report filed in July 2017, the candidate raised more than $2 million from April through June 2017, none of that from PACs.
With help from the center’s research director, Sarah Bryner, we confirmed from the OpenSecrets site and FEC filings that O’Rourke did not bank any PAC contributions as he sought re-election in 2016 or in the first months of his Senate bid.
But this proved a slog to confirm because PAC names repeatedly appear in O’Rourke’s contribution reports. His July 2017 filing with the FEC separately shows $14,580 in contributions from other candidate committees.
Our first focus was on gauging the accuracy of O’Rourke’s claim to being one of two members not accepting PAC aid.
After identifying each current senator and House member on the U.S. Congress website, we checked the OpenSecrets site for PAC contributions to each member; the site provides a summary page for each member showing her or his contributions by cycle and over the years. Candidate contributions are further broken down by categories including individual contributions, PAC contributions and self-financing.
Here’s the site’s entry for O’Rourke covering the 2016 election cycle:
SOURCE: Summary for Beto O’Rourke, OpenSecrets.org (accessed May 10, 2017)
From OpenSecrets posts, we identified five House members who did not get PAC contributions before the 2016 elections: O’Rourke; Khanna; Sarbanes, D-Md.; Jared Polis, D-Colo; Rooney, R-Fla--with Polis, Khanna and Rooney also fielding no PAC aid in their House careers.
A conflict we didn't settle: CleanSlateNow previously identified Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., as not getting PAC help in his 2016 re-election bid. In contrast, Roe’s OpenSecrets summary page for Roe indicates he got $6,000 in PAC donations before that election.
Next, we eyeballed FEC-posted information, focusing on campaign filings by House members’ principal campaign committees for 2015-16.
These records confirmed Khanna did not get PAC contributions that cycle. Otherwise, the records showed, Rooney received a $10,296 PAC contribution from Rooney Victory on Dec. 30, 2016; Sarbanes received donations from the VoteSANE PAC; and Polis logged contributions attributed to JStreetPAC, AmeriPAC and ActBlue. Similarly, our FEC search suggested that O’Rourke’s campaign in 2015-16 received $110,721 attributed to PACs (including ActBlue, JStreetPAC and the New Democrat Coalition PAC). Of this total, $74,400 in contributions were designated for the 2018 Democratic primary.
So, candidates including O'Rourke took PAC aid?
Not so, we found, in that the donations were almost uniformly made by individuals whose personal contribution were routed through supportive "conduit" PACs--a phrase we hadn’t heard before. It looked to us like the donation to Rooney came from a committee devoted to his candidacy.
On the FEC site, the respective 2016 donations marked as "PAC" to Sarbanes, O’Rourke and Polis were each accompanied by a column describing the donations as a "conduit total," with a note stating the donation was "earmarked through this organization."
We sought more information about ActBlue, the largest aggregator of individual contributions among the PACs linked to O’Rourke. The group says on its web site that it offers tools to help Democratic candidates but it’s not a traditional PAC that rounds up donations and obscures specific donors. ActBlue says it "acts as a conduit federally and in most states, which means we provide the infrastructure for campaigns and organizations to fundraise online, but we don’t fundraise on behalf of anyone. Unlike groups that spend large sums of cash from undisclosed sources, ActBlue offers grassroots donors a way to give fully disclosed donations to the candidates and causes they choose," the group says.
CONDUIT PAC DONATIONS TO BETO O’ROURKE CAMPAIGN, 2016
CONDUIT PAC NAME
ActBlue Technical Services
New Democrat Coalition
SOURCE: Spreadsheet listing contributions to O’Rourke campaign, based on search of Federal Election Commission website, June 2016, PolitiFact Texas
In July 2017, when we looked afresh at the OpenSecrets summary page for O’Rourke in 2017-18, it showed $29,160 in PAC contributions to O’Rourke’s Senate campaign. A few days later, the chart indicated $43,740 in PAC donations.
Red flags? Negative, Bryner told us, saying the charts summarizing O’Rourke’s Senate contributions were erroneous and would be rectified.
Significantly, Bryner also showed us how to query an FEC site that provides detailed files about all candidates, parties and other political committees. From the site, we fetched a July 23, 2017 commission list itemizing more than 45,000 PAC contributions to congressional candidates in the 2017-18 election cycle. That list showed no PAC contributions to O’Rourke.
We asked campaign finance experts to guide us to documentation distinguishing donations through conduit PACs from traditional PAC contributions.
Judith Ingram, press officer at the FEC, showed us that in quarterly filings, ActBlue donations present an individual name as a line item below each listing of ActBlue as a donor, along with a text field that explains the individual donation is part of a conduit total. Ingram further confirmed that the JStreet PAC contributions reported by O’Rourke were made by individual donors employing the PAC as a conduit.
Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, echoed Ingram’s comments--that groups such as ActBlue act as intermediaries by processing payments that "can be attributed to an actual donor, a human being." If a donation was a traditional PAC contribution, Spaulding explained, the listed contributor would be the PAC alone, and there wouldn’t be a specific individual’s name linked to it.
O’Rourke said: "I’m one of two members of Congress out of 535 that takes no corporate cash, no political action committee money."
Unsaid: no candidate can take corporate cash; that’s illegal. Otherwise, we found, O’Rourke was one of at least five (not two) House incumbents to keep no PAC contributions in the run-up to the 2016 elections. He also hasn’t accepted PAC aid into 2017 though he drew on about $297,000 in PAC donations in his House bids of 2012 and 2014--actions not recapped in his Dallas call for contributions.
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Campaign Facebook video, Beto O’Rourke in Dallas, March 31, 2017
Web pages, Federal Election Commission, "Contributions," February 2004 and updated February 2017; "Details Files About Candidates, Parties and Other Committees," undated (accessed June 23 and July 25, 2017)
Press release, "RELEASE: Reps. Khanna and O’Rourke Introduce Legislation Prohibiting PAC Donations," U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, March 27, 2017
Email, Beto O’Rourke, April 25, 2017
Phone interview and emails, David Wysong, senior adviser, Beto O’Rourke U.S. Senate campaign, July 26-27, 2017
Form letter from Beto O’Rourke to possible PAC donors, Feb. 9, 2015 (received by email from David Wysong, July 26, 2017)
Letter returning donation from Treasury Employees PAC, Brianna Carmen, campaign manager, Beto O’Rourke campaign, Oct. 17, 2016 (received by email from David Wysong, July 26, 2017)
Congressional members list, U.S. Congress website, 2017 (accessed May 8, 2017)
Web pages, Center for Responsive Politics, "Political Action Committees," Center for Responsive Politics, undated (accessed June 8, 2017); "Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 2016 Summary," "Methodology" (accessed May 8, 2017); "Methodology "Source of Funds, Ted Cruz, Career," "Source of Funds, Beto O’Rourke, Career," both updated through May 18, 2017 (accessed July 25, 2017)
Spreadsheet listing 2015-2016 contributions to Beto O’Rourke campaign, (downloaded from FEC website, May 2017
Web page, "About," ActBlue, 2017 (accessed July 25, 2017)
Phone interview, Judith Ingram, press officer and assistant staff director, Public Disclosure and Media Relations Division, Federal Election Commission, June 29, 2017
Phone interview, Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs, Common Cause, July 3, 2017
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