FBI Raids Annapolis
Last week, the FBI swept into downtown Annapolis to raid a little known but highly connected campaign consulting firm, Strategic Campaign Group (SCG). The firm, which provides fundraising, voter contact, robocalling and other campaign services to conservative candidates and political committees at the state and national level, has worked with a variety of Maryland state politicians including House Minority Leader Nic Kipke and Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings. Both politicians say they have cut ties with the firm unless and until SCG is cleared of any wrongdoing.
While the exact reason for the raid is currently unclear, SCG has suggested that the FBI’s warrants were issued in relation to work the firm did with a PAC many have accused of scamming voters. Former Virginia Gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has accused the PAC, Conservative Strikeforce PAC, of using his name in solicitations for donations, leading voters to believe their donations to the organization would benefit Mr. Cuccinelli’s campaign. Of the over $2 million in donations the PAC raised, only about $2,200 was spent on anything that would have helped put Cuccinelli in the governor’s mansion.
Through the 2016 elections, various scam PACs like Strikeforce preyed on enthusiastic and unsuspecting voters, advertising that they were supporting popular outside candidates while funneling the donated funds back to themselves through consulting fees and salaries to PAC leadership. While the problem has not reached crisis levels in Maryland, last week’s FBI raid shows that our state is not immune to problems caused by the blockbuster amounts of money in our politics.
Maryland’s General Assembly must act to address scam PACs. This past session, Common Cause Maryland worked with Del. Eric Luedtke on a bill that would have helped expose scam PACs by requiring PACs to disclose the amount spent on overhead and consultants, but the bill failed to move. We urge the Maryland legislature to act on these reforms next session, ensuring better protections for constituents before the state elections in 2018 hit full swing.
The FBI raid of PCG also raises concerns over the role of PACs generally, an issue over which Common Cause Maryland has been ringing the alarm bell for years. In 2016, Maryland saw its first significant fines levied against a Super PAC, as Clean Slate Baltimore PAC failed to file and report on its activities in the Baltimore City mayoral race. The ability of PACs to funnel dark money into elections shows the critical need for strong state transparency laws, including the requirement for participating organizations — entities that funnel money to PACs and independent expenditure groups — to disclose their donors and expenditures.
The events at PCG highlight the importance of two laws passed this year with the support of Common Cause, HB898 which defines coordination between PACs and candidates, and HB1498, which increases accountability for bad actors running PACs and independent expenditure groups. Both bills are still awaiting the Governor’s signature. Common Cause urges Governor Hogan to sign these vital money-in-politics bills into law to send a clear message that Maryland’s elections are not for sale.
As the cost to run a competitive campaign continues to balloon, service industries that provide fundraising, robocalling, and other services to those campaigns have grown as well. And as those industries’ profits grow, so does their influence over the legislature. Maryland’s General Assembly must act decisively to halt this trend by passing reforms that shine light on the activities of scammers and dark money groups and ensure that every Marylander has a voice in their government.