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Leadership PACs: A Breeding Ground for Stories
By Nedra Pickler
The Associated Press

  • Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000

    It was my first week on the job in Washington, DC, where I was sent to fill in for the AP's Michigan regional writer on maternity leave. I was still organizing my desk when the AP's campaign finance reporter, Jon Salant, called my extension and asked, "Did you know Gov. Engler has a federal leadership PAC?"

    Not only did I not know that Engler had one, I was only vaguely familiar with what a leadership PAC is.

    Jon's tip got me started on my first campaign finance story.

    I soon found out that leadership PACs are formed by elected officials for three reasons: to give money to other candidates, to promote issues that the official cares about, and to pay expenses, such as travel, on behalf of other candidates.

    As an individual, John Engler could give only $1,000 to a candidate per election, Governor Engler's Leadership Fund can give up to $5,000 per election.

    My first task was to look up the PAC on the Federal Election Commission's Web site (www.fec.gov). Besides being able to download his filing, the site also had valuable legal information about how much a PAC can raise.

    Since the fund was formed last summer, it had not really begun to dole out the money. The real story was in who gave to Engler's leadership fund and why the governor had formed the fund in the first place.

    There were 61 contributors listed on the FEC's Web report, and a quick look showed that most (46 to be exact) were from outside of Michigan. The remaining contributors were from Washington, DC, and the surrounding suburbs.

    Many of the donors listed their occupation as "lawyer." Automatically, I assumed that meant many were federal government lobbyists. Why else were they giving to a state official?

    I wanted to make sure my assumption was right. So, I built a simple database in Microsoft Excel -- a skill I learned at an IRE conference. I entered information from the FEC's report, including the donor's name, hometown, occupation, employer and amount and date each gave. Some donors did not clearly list their occupation or employer, but at the FECInfo site (www.tray.com), you can look up other donations, if any, a contributor has made. Many had listed relevant information more clearly on other campaign forms. While keying in the data, I quickly realized that most of the donations were given on Nov. 22, 1999 -- a clue that Engler must have had a fund-raiser in Washington. I looked up each of the donors in the "Washington Representatives" guide, which lists lobbyists, their firms and clients. Not all the "lawyers" who donated were in the guide, so I did a search of their names and firms on the Internet. Afterward, I made office calls to confirm whether these individuals were lobbyists. I then added that information to my database.

    After doing numerous queries, there proved to be no correlation between a lobbyist and his or her employer. A few had clients with interests in Michigan, but the majority didn't. I called several lobbyists, and most said they were from Michigan and attended the fund-raiser because they personally knew the governor.

    Next, I wanted to know how many other governors had federal leadership PACs. I sorted through filings at FECInfo (www.tray.com) and The Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org). Only three governors had established political leadership PACs: New York Gov. George Pataki, former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean.

    Armed with information, I sought out those who could help me piece together the money trail. While many campaign finance experts told me that it's common for governors to form leadership PACs to support state candidates, it was rare for them to raise money for federal candidates around the country, as Engler's spokesman said he planned to do.

    Many political analysts told me Engler--a lame duck governor-had created the PAC so that he could continue to be a player in national politics. (Engler will be term limited out of office in 2002.)

    I began to wonder whether other Michigan officials had federal leadership PACs. The FEC's Web site offers an advanced search of its reports, listing PAC committees by state. Out of the 508 from Michigan, both Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer had federal PACs as well. The main difference them and Engler being the overwhelming majority of their money came from within the state.

    While campaign finance reporting is not my full-time job, I plan to keep checking on Michigan's political players through the FEC's Web site. One never knows when a new PAC will pop up.