Colbert Super PAC lawyer explains how campaign finance disclosure is and isn’t working

The Takeaway

Tuesday was the day when all of the Super PACs had to report their fundraising for the current election cycle.

While a Mitt Romney-related Super PAC brought in the most money, more than $30 million, the bulk since last July, a smaller Super PAC is generating a massive amount of attention. That would be the Stephen Colbert Super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Colbert Super PAC raised more than $850,000 — almost exclusively from individual donors.  The Romney-related Super PAC, Restore Our Future Super PAC, generated its contributions from big donors, including 10 who gave $1 million each. Learn more about donors and how much they gave from The New York Times’ interactive graphic of Super PACs and their donors.

But for Colbert, who has regularly waded into politics over the years, his Super PAC isn’t really a way to influence voters in favor of one candidate or another. Instead, it’s a source of jokes and, perhaps, a way to educate American voters on what Colbert and many others consider to be the downright ludicrous elements of America’s campaign finance laws.

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None of that, though, would be possible without the help of Trevor Potter, Colbert’s attorney and former FEC Commissioner. Potter appears regularly on Colbert’s late-night talk show to educate Colbert, and the American public, on what can and can’t happen with a Super PAC.

One thing that is required, one of the few things, is disclosure of who’s spending money on elections. The Watergate-era disclosure law is one of the few limitations imposed on Super PACs.

“Congress required that people who spend money in federal elections have to disclose who’s giving and how they’re spending it,” Potter said. “That’s been a battleground ever since, really, because there’s been disputes over what spending has to be disclosed, arguments over whether certain advertising is not really election spending, etc.”

But while we do know where these political action committees are getting and spending their money, all the numbers reported Tuesday are as of Dec. 31. The primaries, and PAC spending, really didn’t heat up until January, Potter pointed out.

“We can safely assume all of these groups raised and spent a lot of money in January and we won’t know for a while who that was and what that money was,” Potter said.

Potter said it’s obvious the disclosure system is slow, inadequate and behind-the times, in terms of what we’re learning.

Super PACs, enabled by the Citizens United ruling in 2010, represent a real revolution in the world of campaign finance. Whereas, previously, individuals and businesses were capped at a maximum donation of $2500 per candidate or political action committee, Citizens United revoked those limits for these Super PACs. That essentially opens up an unlimited stream of funding.

“Now that people can give to these Super PACs and their names are only disclosed voluntarily, it confuses voters,” Potter said. “They all have names that sound about the same, so you virtually need a score-card to figure out who’s behind it. And, of course, the ads are deniable by the candidates.”

By law, the candidates cannot coordinate with candidates for office, but in practice, they’re often run by people who are close to or used to work for a specific candidate. And that means the Super PACs can be relied on to run what are typically very negative advertisement, but that the candidates can disavow, Potter said.

Potter said he thinks there’s a deep sense of frustration among voters over the way the campaign finance system is working. And that’s part of what is fueling the success of Colbert’s Super PAC

“People who are giving to him, are interested in being part of an experiment to figure out what to do about it and how to highlight what’s happening,” Potter said. “Certainly, his PAC and the activities its engaged in have done a good job of explaining to citizens who haven’t been following this closely, what all these changes are and what a wild west world we’re now in.”

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