Here is what the Internet and state documents can tell us about Brian P. Sullivan. He has a nonprofit, called Rosebush Corp., in his name. He owns a five-bedroom home set back on 2 acres in the Main Line suburb of Malvern. His swimming pool is shaped like an amoeba. Beyond that, it gets fuzzy. It’s not clear what Sullivan does for a living, and his Malvern neighbors have never met him or his family. His secrecy is matched by that of Rosebush, a 501(c)4 that does not appear to have engaged in any activity, charitable or otherwise, beyond funneling $125,000 in anonymous donations to two conservative third-party campaign groups.
“I don’t think he’s a player at all,” says Chester County Democratic Party chairwoman Michele Vaughn, who had never heard of Sullivan and points out he wasn’t even a frequent voter.
“Is he a real person?” asks Chester County Republican Party executive director Rob Brooks.
The money Rosebush donates, however, is very real. It includes $25,000 to Restore Our Future, one of the main political action committees — super PACs — allied with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and $100,000 to the Club for Growth Action, which runs a pro-business super PAC and “527” organization (the number refers to the tax code under which such entities operate).
“The Rosebush Corporation?” asks Club for Growth communications director Barney Keller, when reached by phone. “Um. I will have to get back to you.” Also contacted by phone, Mrs. Sullivan refused to say what her husband did for work: He would call City Paper back. Sullivan, like Keller, never did.
The donations are part of an avalanche of third-party spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which struck down restrictions on corporations, unions, trade associations and nonprofits funding “express advocacy” advertisements that directly encourage voters to support or oppose a candidate. The resulting cash flow has been a major — indeed, potentially deciding — force in elections here and around the country this year. And nonprofits like Rosebush have become the deepest and darkest pit of campaign money. Though the Supreme Court’s conservative majority emphasized that disclosure would hold donors accountable, these “charities” don’t have to disclose donors.
“A large number of (c)4s have sprung up in the wake of the Citizens United decision seemingly for the sole purpose of legally laundering money into our elections while hiding the … source of those funds,” says Paul S. Ryan of the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. The legality is in question: The IRS requires groups to “primarily” engage in social-welfare activities in exchange for tax-exempt status. But there is almost no oversight. Ryan says that if Rosebush indeed spends its money on nothing but political donations, “they have most certainly violated their status.”
And the impact of such donations on campaigns can be overwhelming. Rosebush’s Club for Growth donation is not even close to the nation’s largest. But it’s almost enough to cover the organization’s $155,983 in spending on TV ads attacking western Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Mark Critz, in a race that has attracted the second-most outside spending of any House race in the country.
Nearly half of nationwide campaign spending so far has come from organizations that do not fully disclose their donors — or disclose them at all. This “shadow money,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has flown overwhelmingly to support Republicans and attack Democrats.
In Pennsylvania, the Fight for the Dream super PAC — which has ties to losing candidate Steve Welch and natural-gas drillers Devon Energy — spent about $175,000 against Republican U.S. Senate candidate and mining-company millionaire Tom Smith during the primary. Its donations were funneled through a related nonprofit, masking donor identities. The group this month received a direct $240,000 donation from Rosebud Mining Co., which bought Smith’s coal mines. The donations are being spent on ads attacking Smith’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., according to the Allentown Morning Call.
Much spending has likely not yet been disclosed, since about half of outside campaign spending generally takes place during the campaign’s last month. Pennsylvanians have donated $69.6 million to political campaigns during this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Third parties separate from candidates and parties spent nearly $1 billion this year.
“We are quite troubled by the apparent enormous onslaught of independent expenditures,” says Pennsylvania Common Cause executive director Barry Kauffman, because they “have the effect of drowning out the ideas, opinions and concerns of regular voters.”
Wealthy Pennsylvanians have also made large public donations to super PACs. Butler County cable provider Armstrong Group is the state’s largest super PAC donor, cutting a $1.32 million check to the pro-Romney American Crossroads. Armstrong has also offered its cable customers free viewing of the incendiary feature-length anti-Obama infomercial 2016: Obama’s America, according to Pittsburgh City Paper. Philly real estate investor Mel Heifetz, a gay man, has cited Obama’s support for gay rights to explain his $1 million donation to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action. Wilkes & McHugh, a Philly law firm, donated $250,000 to Majority PAC, which supports Democratic Senate campaigns. Russell Palmer, a Philly investor and former Wharton dean, gave $100,000 to American Crossroads. John Templeton Jr., a wealthy Bryn Mawr heir and conservative Christian, gave $500,000 to the Raising Red, American Crossroads, and the Red, White and Blue Fund super PACs.
Money has also flowed into state-level races. Pennsylvania is one of a minority of states that allows unlimited individual contributions to candidates, though corporate donations are banned. Labor unions have so far contributed $2.8 million this election cycle, along with $2.6 million from lawyers and lobbyists and $7.5 million from business, according to still-incomplete data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The attorney general race, pitting Democrat Kathleen Kane against Republican David Freed, has attracted outside spending from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a D.C.-based 527 organization. An RSLC ad called Kane “soft” on rape, in what FactCheck.org called “one of the most blatantly false attack ads of the political season.” The RSLC, a major force behind Republican state-level candidacies nationwide, is funded by corporations including Wynn Resorts (casinos), Devon Energy, Comcast, Citigroup, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, AT&T and Koch Industries. Kane’s husband, Christopher, has spent $2.25 million on his wife’s campaign, making him the state’s top individual donor.
As to what all of this money really accomplishes, a good test case is the Republican Governors Association (RGA) — a 527 that donated more than $6 million to Corbett’s 2010 campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That year, the RGA received $4 million from natural-gas-related companies eager to profit from the Marcellus Shale. Since corporate gifts to candidates are banned, the RGA simply classified the donations as coming from the group’s individual donors. Many of those donors won seats on Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. And Pennsylvania’s gas-extraction fee? Corbett fought to prevent its imposition, then ensured it was among the lowest in the country.
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