HELENA — A U.S. House candidate in Montana is benefiting from a political action committee he created, leading at least one opponent and some experts to question the legality of the peculiar arrangement.
Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who is seeking the Republican nomination for Montana's lone congressional seat, created the Special Operations for America (SOFA) super PAC to back Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. The committee now backs candidates who support the military — and their first candidate is Zinke, a 52-year-old former state senator.
Since October, when Zinke announced his candidacy, SOFA PAC has spent more than $70,000 on television, radio and Internet advertising in support of his campaign.
Zinke resigned from SOFA PAC in September. He said he had an attorney review the transition in the PAC's leadership to ensure there was no conflict of interest or violation of any Federal Election Commission rules on campaign coordination. He also said he appreciates the PAC's support but that it was not his decision.
"I resigned weeks before we announced," Zinke told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I wanted to make sure everything was aboveboard and squeaky clean."
Zinke's campaign has raised more money than any other in a crowded field for the Republican nomination that includes state Sen. Matt Rosendale, Rep. Elsie Arntzen, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton and conservative Drew Turiano.
Most declined to be interviewed about Zinke and SOFA PAC. Stapleton said how the PAC operates is not his call — "I'm not going to be the guy trying to call fouls," he said — but that the appearance of a conflict is there.
"It's not supposed to happen that way. You've not supposed to have a super PAC raise money for themselves then hand it over with a wink and a nod and be able to use it as a source of revenue," Stapleton said.
Paul Ryan, chief counsel for the Washington D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, said it is uncharted territory for a person to hand over control of a PAC to run for office. He speculated it could open the door for others to create super PACS to rake in contributions from individuals and businesses, then announce their own candidacies.
"If this is permissible, one can envision the campaign-contribution limits being completely eviscerated," Ryan said.
The U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for the creation of super PACs, or independent expenditure-only committees, in 2010 with its Citizens United ruling that corporations may make independent expenditures and communications in political campaigns.
But there are rules against candidates coordinating with super PACs. SOFA PAC must certify that there has been no consultation with the candidate or campaign. If a candidate did coordinate to produce an advertisement or another communication, that would be considered an in-kind contribution that must be reported and would be subject to campaign-finance limits.
In recent years, the Federal Elections Commission has reviewed more than a half-dozen complaints alleging illegal or unreported coordination between super PACS and other political committees and candidates. In most cases, FEC appointees found no wrongdoing or deadlocked on a decision.
Zinke started SOFA PAC from an address near his home in the northwestern Montana town of Whitefish. He had run and lost as gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone's running mate in the 2012 Republican primary.
FEC filings show SOFA PAC raised $182,378 that year and spent all but $2,357 of it by year's end.
Romney's run had ended, but SOFA PAC's run was just beginning. Zinke began fundraising across the nation through direct-mail campaigns, advertising and events. His consulting firm, Continental Divide International, received thousands of dollars from the PAC for its fundraising work.
Over the course of 2013, SOFA PAC raised $1,317,184 — 15th among super PACS in money raised for the 2014 election cycle so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based group that studies the effects of campaign contributions and lobbying.
Much of its money went to fundraising, research and strategy. But SOFA PAC began making independent expenditures supporting Zinke's campaign in October, starting with Facebook and Google Internet ads. In November, SOFA PAC began spending thousands on television and radio ads telling voters to elect Zinke. By January, more than $70,000 was spent to help Zinke.
SOFA PAC has supported just one other candidate: a $120,000 media buy for Republican Shane Osborne's U.S. Senate campaign in Nebraska.
Gary Stubblefield, who took over as SOFA PAC's chairman in October, said he has had no communication with Zinke. "As far as I know, there is no contact. We follow the guidelines very closely," Stubblefield said.
Zinke insists the organization was deliberately set up to counter the new criticism.
"We could have set it up where you can't tell who the donors are. It was deliberately set up as an independent-expenditure organization because I wanted it to be transparent," he said.