A political group accused of misleading conservatives will pay tens of thousands of dollars to former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II under a settlement reached this month.
Cuccinelli (R) accused Conservative StrikeForce PAC last fall of using his 2013 gubernatorial run to raise funds that were never delivered to the campaign. In the settlement, the group agreed to pay Cuccinelli’s campaign $85,000 and turn over all its lists of telephone, e-mail and direct-mail contacts for donors.
In an interview Tuesday, Cuccinelli applauded the agreement.
“It’s just a thunderous precedent . . . to make it harder and more expensive to be deceitful and misleading with people in the political arena as far as donations go,” he said. “In an already sour environment, people who think they’re supporting something they believe in are defrauded.”
Cuccinelli alleged in his suit that he received $10,000 from the PAC in 2013, out of “approximately $2.2 million” raised. Promises of independent expenditures to support him with get-out-the-vote efforts, direct mail, phone banks, radio ads, canvassing and other election work went unfulfilled, the suit said.
In that campaign, Cuccinelli was outraised by Democrat Terry McAuliffe by nearly 2-to-1. McAuliffe defeated him by about 56,000 votes.
The case is the first of its kind, according to Cuccinelli, although committees that spend most of their money on fundraising are common. In 2014, for example, a committee to draft conservative Ben Carson into the 2016 presidential race spent $2.44 million to raise $2.4 million — meaning very little went toward actual electioneering on Carson’s behalf.
It’s unclear what impact, if any, the settlement might have on other candidates who believe that they have been mistreated by unscrupulous PACs. A similar complaint from former congressman Allen B. West (R-Fla.) was dismissed without a hearing by the Federal Election Commission in 2012 after FEC lawyers concluded that the committees had met their reporting and disclaimer obligations.
“It’s very hard to see how this would work on the federal level,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the FEC who works at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “The FEC wouldn’t find it easy to say that you can go suing various PACs for not giving you enough support.”
Noble said a similar case might succeed at the federal level if it were filed by donors rather than a candidate.
There are no campaign contribution limits in Virginia to block the large settlement, and although it was filed in federal court, Cuccinelli’s suit rested in part on state law. A settlement also cannot be cited as precedent in future cases.
Cuccinelli, however, argued that a federal candidate could sue under similar grounds and that the funds are damages rather than contributions subject to limits. More than 30 states, he said, also have similar laws to Virginia’s against misappropriation of someone’s name and likeness.
From January 2013 to June 2014, Conservative StrikeForce raised more than $2.8 million, according to FEC reports, about $82,000 of which went to candidates or campaign committees. Almost everything else went toward operating expenses, including large payments for direct-mail solicitations.
Fifty thousand dollars will be paid to Cuccinelli immediately under the agreement; the remainder will be paid over seven months. Strategic Campaign Group, which has ties to the PAC and was paid to make calls on its behalf, also will turn over donor information.
Cuccinelli estimated that the group raised about $435,000 from e-mails using his name. But he said that had the case gone to court, the PAC would have argued that it spent about three-quarters of that sum to raise the money.
“They used me to help build their file” of donors, Cuccinelli said. “They never had any serious intention of being helpful to us.”
As part of the settlement, Conservative StrikeForce agreed to abide by requests from candidates to stop using their names in solicitations and to maintain contact information on its Web site.
Conservative StrikeForce did not respond to a request for comment. When the suit was filed, an attorney for the group said that it was difficult to raise money for Cuccinelli’s campaign.
Campaign finance reports show Conservative StrikeForce had only about $16,000 in cash at the end of last year. Cuccinelli has revived his own PAC, Liberty Now, and is planning to help state Senate candidates in this year’s legislative elections.
But much of the settlement will be used to pay legal fees, he said.