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FBI searches Republican political consulting firm in Annapolis

Kelley Rogers, president of Strategic Campaign Group, at his office in Annapolis on Thursday. (Josh Hicks/TWP)

Federal authorities on Thursday searched the offices of a political consulting firm in Annapolis that has worked with Republican candidates locally and nationwide and was sued in 2014 on allegations of fraudulent fundraising practices.

Strategic Campaign Group says it supports Republican candidates on a range of services including mail, fundraising and telephone town halls. Its leaders include GOP strategists Kelley Rogers, Chip O’Neil and Dennis Whitfield.

The firm has close ties to Republican consultant Scott B. Mackenzie, a treasurer for multiple political action committees that have drawn scrutiny for spending little money on candidates and instead steering donations to consultants, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Rogers said in an interview that he helped lead one of those groups, the Conservative Strike Force.

On Thursday, six FBI agents showed up at the third-floor office of Strategic Campaign Group to gather computer files and documents related to the firm’s direct mail and fundraising practices, Rogers said. Lindsay Ram, a spokeswoman for the FBI field office in Washington, confirmed that agents were “conducting law enforcement activity in Annapolis, off Main Street.”

Rogers said agents appeared interested in work the firm did during Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s 2013 gubernatorial race. Cuccinelli (R) sued the Strategic Campaign Group and the Conservative Strike Force in 2014, alleging they raised almost $2.2 million to support his campaign but steered little of that money to him.

“Our suspicion is that this is just a carry-over from that,” Rogers said. “I think the facts speak for themselves, and we tried to give the agents all the information they could possibly need.”

The Conservative Strike Force agreed to pay Cuccinelli $85,000 to settle the lawsuit, and Strategic Campaign Group said it would turn over donor information.

The Conservative Strike Force has paid Strategic Campaign Group at least $493,000 for services since 2011, according to federal records. Strategic Campaign Group also received at least $188,000 in that time period from the Conservative Majority Fund, another political action committee listing Mackenzie as its treasurer. Mackenzie did not return a voice mail seeking comment.

Both groups have spent a small portion of the donations they receive on the candidates they aim to support, according to federal records, and reported high spending on consultants and other firms.

The Federal Election Commission has been struggling for some time with the issue of political action committees that are formed solely to enrich those running them. Unlike nonprofits, which are governed by boards of directors, PACs can be run by a single consultant. And although candidates are prohibited under federal election law from using campaign donations for personal use, traditional political action committees and their super PAC brethren face few limitations on how they spend their funds.

Critics say "scam PACs" have proliferated in recent years, driven in part by the advent of big-money super PACs in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision. There has also been a surge in groups chasing small-dollar donors, often with misleading promises of how they plan to use those funds.

The Strategic Campaign Group has ties to Republicans in the Maryland state legislature, and Rogers has raised money for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), although Rogers said Thursday that federal agents did not appear interested in his local work.

In 2016, Strategic Campaign Group was paid by the campaigns of Maryland House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) and GOP Maryland congressional candidates Patrick McDonough and Charles Faddis, state and federal records show. Kipke said Thursday that the state GOP House and Senate political operations would suspend work with the company until the investigation is resolved.

Strategic Campaign Group also worked to support Republican Kathy Szeliga’s unsuccessful 2016 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.

Virginia Republicans, mostly state lawmakers, have sent the company more than $500,000 since 2009 for services including polling and robocalls, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Alice Crites, Peter Hermann, Ann Marimow, Steven Rich, Elise Viebeck and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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