The Bernie Sanders campaign in April accused Hillary Clinton of “looting” her joint fundraising committee to fund her presidential campaign, effectively circumventing rules that cap donations at $5,400 per person.
Clinton’s joint committee, called the Hillary Victory Fund, can raise $358,500 per person because it’s supposed to share money with the Democratic National Committee and state parties.
The Sanders campaign pointed to news reports that the fund has been covering expenses for the Clinton campaign instead of spending on down-ballot races.
The Clinton campaign called the charges irresponsible.
But if the Sanders campaign is right, it wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened.
Previously unreported details from campaign filings dating to Clinton’s first presidential bid show that, between 2008 and 2009, a similarly intentioned “leadership PAC” called Hill PAC directly enriched her own campaign and campaign staffers considerably more than it did those of other candidates.
Hill PAC dates back to 2001, but was dormant while Clinton ran for president. She relaunched Hill PAC after suspending her campaign in June 2008 and tossing her support to Barack Obama.
In an October 2008 article headlined “Democrats Have Reason to Celebrate: Hill PAC Is Back,” the Washington Post cast it as a big win for down-ballot races.
“We’re throwing everything we’ve got into making sure [Obama] stands before the nation as a president with the political strength to break the gridlock, get things done, and start progress going in America again,” Clinton wrote to supporters in October. “And with a filibuster-proof Senate, we’ll be able to bring the change this country so desperately needs.”
A Hill PAC email sent the day before the election read: “I hope you will take action by joining us in this final push,” just above a button to contribute.
But only 11 percent of the relaunched Hill PAC’s spending ultimately went to candidates, filings show. Between June 2008, when Clinton dropped out of the presidential race, and the PAC’s termination the next summer, Hill PAC raised about $3.9 million but contributed just $421,500 to candidates.
Most top leadership PACs dedicate close to half of what they raise to other candidates in competitive races, according to OpenSecrets.org. In the years after its founding in 2001, Hill PAC spent a larger proportion of its expenditures on contributions to other candidates — but still considerably less than the average leadership PAC. It spent 27 percent on others in 2002, 17 percent in 2004, and 16 percent in 2006, according to FEC filings.
The relaunched Hill PAC spent twice what it gave in contributions to other campaigns on salaries to its own staffers, almost all of whom had worked for Clinton’s campaign or her Senate office. For instance, Clinton campaign treasurer Shelly Moskwa was paid about $11,000 more by Hill PAC in 2009 than the treasurer of Hill PAC itself, Allison Wright. Hill PAC also paid nearly $400,000 in consulting fees to firms founded or closely associated with campaign staffers. The campaign and Hill PAC even shared an Arlington office.
Neither Wright, now executive director at the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, nor former Hill PAC director Capricia Marshall, now ambassador in residence at the Atlantic Council, replied to several emails and calls for comment.
But Clinton press aide Nick Merrill told The Intercept that looking at direct donations alone “is not an accurate reflection of the efforts and the efficacy of the PAC.”
“The 11 percent number is misleading,” he wrote in an email. “HillPAC determined that one of the fastest and most productive ways of using the list to benefit candidates was to email supporters — in many instances urging them to make contributions directly to candidates.”
For instance, Merrill said Hill PAC facilitated $750,000 in direct grassroots donations in the months before November 2008 — twice as much as the PAC gave directly to candidates. Such donations would not have run through PAC coffers, however, and are therefore not verifiable via FEC records.
The Intercept examined over a dozen emails sent by Hill PAC from July to November 2008, each soliciting contributions through hyperlinks that took donors to the PAC’s website. A cached version of the PAC’s site shows both “candidates” pages that link to ActBlue, a clearinghouse for small donations to Democratic candidates, and a “contribute” page that appears to solicit contributions to the PAC.
Merrill also credited Hill PAC with “recruiting thousands of volunteers in a HillPAC grassroots field organizing program called ‘Hillary Sent Me’” who went “door-to-door campaigning across the country in seven targeted states,” as well as paying for Clinton’s travel costs “as she traveled cross country in support of the Obama ticket, including 70 events for that ticket alone.”
Merrill said she “campaigned and fundraised for over 80 other candidates in nearly 30 states, including 16 Senate and 60 House candidates, and, in the process, raising millions of dollars for Democrats.” Clinton headlined events where “over $10 million dollars was raised for the Obama-Biden ticket,” he said.
But the event schedule he cited to support that figure pointed to fundraisers hosted by the White House Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee unaffiliated with Hill PAC. And at one of the events cited by Merrill, Obama asked donors to contribute to Clinton’s campaign on pledge cards located under their seats, according to a CNN report. “Senator Clinton still has some debt,” Obama told the audience.
What FEC records show is that Hill PAC’s single largest payment went to Clinton’s campaign, which was about $25 million in debt, including $13 million Clinton lent it herself, when Clinton dropped out in June. While Hill PAC couldn’t legally donate more than $5,000 to Clinton’s campaign account, it was allowed to pay for goods or services from the campaign.
Hill PAC paid $822,492 to the Clinton campaign to rent its list of supporters and their contact information. That alone was nearly twice the amount Hill PAC contributed to down-ballot candidates.
The campaign told the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that Hill PAC paid to use the list for the November election. But filings show Hill PAC didn’t actually pay for the list until January 19, 2009.
Two days after Hill PAC’s payment to her cash-strapped campaign, Clinton was confirmed as secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Hill PAC did not contribute to any candidates after that, and dissolved in July.
“The evidence does suggest Hill PAC was used primarily as a slush fund to subsidize Clinton’s presidential campaign, using money raised outside of the limits that apply to the campaign itself, rather than as a fund to support other candidates,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance expert at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that supports campaign finance reform.
Fischer said that, in regards to the list payment, “if there was a functioning FEC,” it “could have followed up and asked for the contract between the Clinton campaign and Hill PAC or any of these other groups to determine whether the delayed payments were pursuant to an agreement. But of course we don’t have a functioning FEC.” (The Federal Election Commission is in a near-perpetual 3-3 deadlock, with Republican commissioners refusing to enforce the laws.)
Merrill insisted that Hill PAC “was always operated with the highest of ethical standards, and implications to the contrary from those with partisan motives is wholly without merit.”
He said the list rental price, at approximately $600 per 1,000 names, represented the “fair market value” for a multiple-use rental. He said “pricing validation from commercial vendors was used, along with the most recent past presidential campaign at the time, which was Kerry ’04.”
Around the same time, the Clinton Foundation, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DNC Federal Fund, the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and the American Democracy Institute paid $274,297, which Merrill said was the rate for a one-time rental. Other groups paid less.
The only client that paid the Clinton campaign more for its list of supporters was Friends of Hillary, Clinton’s Senate campaign committee. That transaction, for over $2.5 million, was listed as a “sale of assets” and “purchase of assets” on FEC reports filed by the campaign and Hill PAC, respectively, rather than a list rental.
But records show the campaign accepted payments for its list for years after the sale to Friends of Hillary — earning it millions more. Obama’s re-election campaign, for instance, paid $62,782 to use the Clinton list. The campaign earned $25,000 in “list rental income” as recently as January 2013 — four years after the sale.
Merrill said the campaign had different lists and that the one it sold Friends of Hillary included “its direct mail list and other names.” He wrote: “By selling other portions of its lists to [Friends of Hillary], that allowed [Hillary Clinton for President] to continue to rent its email list.” The Wall Street Journal story, however, indicated they were the same list.
Hill PAC spent about $1.2 million on salaries in 2008 and 2009. A majority of Hill PAC staffers had also been campaign staffers. Longtime aides Huma Abedin, Philippe Reines, Bryan Pagliano and Peter Daou all received Hill PAC paychecks after Clinton’s exit from the presidential race. The LinkedIn pages of some staffers indicate that they worked for Hill PAC and the campaign at the same time.
Hill PAC also paid over $350,000 in consulting fees to firms with close associations to campaign staffers. For example, $13,000 went to Eiring Consulting, founded by Clinton fundraiser Nancy Eiring; and $16,700 went to Hudson Media Partners, which served as an offshoot of the consulting firm where, according to the New York Times, campaign communications director Howard Wolfson worked. Mayfield Strategy Group, founded by Josh Ross, a senior digital adviser to the campaign, earned $219,356 in consulting fees.
Fischer, the campaign finance expert, said this kind of commingling isn’t uncommon. “Unfortunately this isn’t an entirely unique way of using a leadership PAC,” he said.
As a leadership PAC, Hill PAC could accept donations of up to $5,000 per year — over and above anything donors had already given directly to the Clinton campaign — on the assumption that the money would be spread around to down-ballot campaigns.
Similarly, in this election cycle, the Hillary Victory Fund calls on donors to “support Hillary Clinton and Democrats up and down the ticket.”
But because the Supreme Court eliminated overall donation limits in the 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the $5,000 limit in 2008 now looks like petty cash. The Hillary Victory Fund, by promising to spread the money to the DNC and state party committees, can accept almost $400,000 per person per election.
In the post-2008 period, Hill PAC received several letters from the FEC asking it to clarify certain expenses apparently made in error. The PAC contributed to some candidates after their races had already been won or lost. For instance, Hill PAC contributed to Tracey Brooks, a candidate for the House representing New York and a former Clinton regional director, nearly two months after she lost her primary race.
Hill PAC was also asked repeatedly by the FEC to clarify whether photography, printing, catering, and consulting expenses were to the benefit of a candidate and might constitute an in-kind contribution.
Hill PAC formally terminated in July 2009, but starting in January some PAC staffers transitioned to a nonprofit organization called NoLimits.org, according to press reports at the time. NoLimits.org operated out of the same Arlington office that had housed Hill PAC and earlier served as campaign headquarters.
As a 501(c)(3), NoLimits.org could not legally engage in any political activity, instead functioning as a nonpartisan organization that posted blog posts about a range of policy issues. Its mission was “inspired by Secretary Clinton’s leadership,” according to a cached version of its website, and links to the site passed through HillaryClinton.com, Politico reported. The group received its revenue from undisclosed individuals and corporations, according to another Politico report.
NoLimits.org was run by Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to the 2008 campaign and a longtime ally of the Clintons, and Sarah Nolan, former New Hampshire political director, both of whom had received Hill PAC paychecks.
And in 2009, it paid the campaign — which remained $6 million underwater then — $455,000 to rent its email list.