By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007
When Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) launched his presidential campaign in January, he stopped raising money for his Hopefund, the political action committee he used to raise millions for fellow Democrats in previous campaigns. But in recent months, Obama has handed out more than $180,000 from the nearly dormant PAC to local Democratic groups and candidates in the key early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, campaign reports show.
Some of the recipients of Hopefund's largess are state and local politicians who have recently endorsed Obama's presidential bid. Obama's PAC reported giving a $1,000 contribution, for instance, to New Hampshire state Sen. Jacalyn Cilley on July 25, six days before she announced she was endorsing Obama for president.
Likewise, state Rep. J. Todd Rutherford, a lawmaker from South Carolina, received a $1,000 contribution from Obama's PAC on Sept. 24, a few months after he endorsed Obama.
Cilley, who has traveled with Obama around New Hampshire and serves on the campaign's steering committee, said that she decided to endorse him before getting the donation but that the announcement was delayed. She said she even considered sending the check back at one point to eliminate any concerns about appearances.
"There were no negotiations about financial remuneration. No quid pro quo. I endorsed him because I believe in him and his policies," the lawmaker said in an interview. "Obviously I was delighted that Senator Obama saw fit to donate to my reelection campaign. I come from one of the poorest districts in the state and I don't collect a lot of donations."
In the first half of the year, there was little donation activity to state and local candidates, but contributions from Hopefund picked up in the past few months, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Obama spokesman Joshua Earnest said there was no connection between the PAC's giving and Obama's presidential aspirations. "Senator Obama long has been doing whatever he can to help elect fellow Democrats all across the country," Earnest said.
Fundraising vehicles known as leadership PACs, which can raise money in much larger chunks than candidates can for their own campaigns, have been a frequent target for criticism by watchdog groups. They argue that leadership PACs allow candidates to skirt campaign contribution and donation limits.
Scott Thomas, a Democrat and a former FEC chairman, said "there's probably no doubt" the PAC donations were aimed at increasing support for Obama's presidential race. "But in my experience, the commission has not had the stomach to reach out and characterize those kinds of contributions as impermissible," Thomas said.
Kent Cooper, the FEC's retired chief of public disclosure, said the commission, if it chose, could declare that Obama's presidential campaign and PAC were "affiliated," meaning some activities involving the PAC could be declared in-kind contributions to the presidential campaign that would exceed current donation limits.
"At this stage of the race, for a presidential candidate, it is a brazen effort to use every avenue to influence an election," Cooper said. "I can't believe the Obama people can keep a straight face and claim these aren't part of the presidential race."
The bulk of donations from Obama's PAC to state and local candidates this year went to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In addition, there were more than $60,000 in donations to national candidates in those same states, including $9,000 for Rep. Paul W. Hodes, the first member of Congress from New Hampshire to endorse Obama earlier this year.
In addition to donating to individuals, Hopefund donated to several key Democratic groups in the battleground states, including $30,000 each to the Iowa House Truman Fund and the Iowa Senate Majority Fund and $15,000 to New Hampshire's Friends of a Democratic Senate.
The Post recently reported that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) handed out donations from his Unite Our States PAC to local politicians in primary states, including several to elected officials who endorsed Biden.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) reported earlier this month that he had donated $2,000 from his Commonwealth PAC in September to the Red Cross affiliate in Iowa, but that was his only contribution. "The federal election laws don't allow you to have a PAC subsidize a campaign. We wanted to make sure we followed the law," Romney spokesman Matt Rhoades said in explaining why the Commonwealth PAC stopped making donations after Romney joined the presidential race.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.