T.W. Farnam
The Influence Industry

Big political donation from modest home

One million dollars is a big political contribution. It’s even bigger for a first-time political donor who lives in a $50,000 house.

Yet that’s apparently the donation Sherry Huff, an accountant in Rossville, Ga., decided to give.

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Huff is listed on federal disclosure records as the source of funding for a Republican super PAC that spent big against President Obama’s reelection last year. She was the primary source of funding for a $1 million billboard campaign highlighting Obama’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage.

The address listed along with Huff’s contribution — and where she is registered to vote — is a modest single-story home worth $50,398, according to records assembled by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“I didn’t like the way the election was looking,” Huff wrote in an e-mail message to The Washington Post. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

CREW, however, believes the source of the money is more likely to have been Huff’s employer, businessman Carey V. Brown, who built a fortune with Internet payday loans he routed through Bermuda to avoid lending laws. Brown recently pledged $1 billion to a Christian charity and has a history of political contributions to Republicans.

On Tuesday, CREW filed a complaint against Huff with the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice, alleging the money was not hers. Giving a political contribution in the name of another person is a federal felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Brown did not respond to requests for comment.

Call it the case of the government watchdog versus the Christian bookkeeper.

“It doesn’t appear that she has the income,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. “That just seems very, very unlikely.”

But like the billionaire Warren Buffett, who has lived in the same modest five-bedroom stucco house in Omaha for decades, Huff said she hasn’t moved because she is comfortable and felt no need for ostentatious living.

“My house is VERY nice and I lack for nothing,” Huff wrote in the e-mail. “I prefer that the income generated by my businesses go to help others who have less than I.”

As to the source of her funds, Huff said she owns “several successful businesses.”

Passing political donations through employees has long been a temptation for rich businesspeople who must abide by the $2,500 cap on donations made directly to a candidate’s campaign. The FEC fined an Arkansas trial lawyer $50,000 in 2006 for donations his firm made to former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) first presidential campaign through four employees and two relatives.

In Huff’s case, however, there are no limits on contributions to the PAC because the money was not going directly to a political candidate’s campaign.

Her contribution was one of many in a 2012 election campaign that swelled with large donations at a pace not seen in almost a decade. A series of court decisions, including the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, legalized unlimited spending on elections as long as candidates are not involved in designing the advertising.

Brown is known in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his payday loan businesses are based, as an eccentric who uses revenue from a controversial industry to fund Christian missionary work overseas. Payday loans, which advance money on an expected paycheck, have been criticized for high interest rates that are paid by the low-income clientele who rely on them.

Huff said she donates generously to charity as well.

“I have a heart for orphans in all parts of the world,” she said.

The FEC will have to vote on whether to pursue CREW’s complaint, but the agency’s Republican commissioners have been reluctant to investigate cases unless presented with stronger evidence that a violation of the law has occurred. The suspicions cast upon Huff in this case likely won’t meet that standard given her strong defense.

“This has been quite a day,” she said.

For more Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

 
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