Political operatives are profiting by using misleading pleas to raise money from people who think they're giving to well-known candidates who don't actually benefit at all.
Their donors are often elderly retirees, campaign finance records show.
But "scam" PACs have little to fear from the Federal Election Commission, according to a series of newly released rulings.
The FEC looked at four such groups after Allen West, the former Florida Republican congressman, filed a complaint that each siphoned off funding from his 2012 re-election campaign, using his name and Image to raise funds for themselves. The groups did little or nothing to help West with the money they raised.
He lost the race by a narrow margin, meaning if those dollars could have been used by the campaign, it might have helped keep him in office.
There is “little doubt that the Respondent sought to use Representative West's likeness to raise funds independently to support his candidacy. Moreover, it appears that the Respondent spent very little of the money it raised to support West," FEC officials wrote in an opinion made public Monday.
"Nonetheless, the commission cannot agree with Complainant that this conduct constitutes a fraud within the reach of [FEC] regulation. Whether it is prohibited by laws beyond the [regulation], criminal or otherwise, is not a matter within the Commission's jurisdiction," the opinion said.
The four PACs raised $14.3 million in 2012. Not all of that is attributable to fundraising that invoked West’s name, but their figures for legitimate advocacy on behalf of other candidates are similarly dismal.
That is three times the cash West's successful opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, raised. The official West re-election campaign raised $19 million.
The West complaint targeted Randy Goodwin and Gary Kreep of the Republican Majority Campaign PAC and Scott MacKenzie and Dennis Whitfield of Conservative StrikeForce.
The FEC said RMC had broken the law by failing to include disclaimers, but the commission decided to use its "prosecutorial discretion" and only issue a warning.
RMC had asked donors to "please give Allen West your swift and generous support."
Conservative StrikeForce misspelled the candidate's name in fundraising solicitations and said they were "working overtime right now to assemble a top-notch voter contact and get-out-the-vote program."
There is no indication in spending records that this occurred, West said.
The complaint notes that its "webpage does not contain any language indicating that Conservative Strikeforce is not affiliated or associated with, or endorsed by, Allen West."
FEC lawyers pointed out that a court had previously found that "even absent an express misrepresentation, a representation is fraudulent if it was reasonably calculated to deceive persons of ordinary prudence and comprehension."
But RMC's language is merely "ambiguous," they said.
The complaint also fingered Jefferey Loyd, Nicholas Spears and Margaret Berardinelli's Coalition of Americans for Political Equality PAC and Thomas Freiling and Steve Elliott's Patriot Super PAC.
West's complaint says that a quarter of Patriot Super PAC's $140,000 in spending went to salaries for the pair running it and only $13,000 was spent on ads, whose purpose actually appeared to be fundraising as well.
"These solicitations prey on civic-minded citizens who are led to believe that their contribution may actually be used in support of Allen West," the complaint said.
"Patriot Super PAC is a scam," it concluded.
CAPE registered the domain name VoteWest2012.org and plastered it with logos reading "Allen West for Congress."
But donations did not go to the West re-election campaign.
The Washington Examiner and the Washington Times previously identified many of the consultants running PACs that spent virtually no money on winning over voters.
In 2011, this reporter, while at the Times, wrote that the Republican Majority Campaign raised $3.8 million from donors in 2010, yet gave only $15,600 to candidates.
Goodwin ran RMC with the help of Charles F. Benninghoff III, a felon who defended in court his “fabricat[ing] various pretenses for retaining” $76,000 in someone else’s funds by arguing in a profanity-laced statement that the victim was wealthy.
Goodwin was then raising money with a vehicle called "Draft Herman Cain," which was launched only after Cain declared his candidacy, as well as a supposed breast cancer awareness group.
MacKenzie has been treasurer of more than 40 political groups, including those that sound like official party committees but aren't, such as the Republican National Committee Member Senate Fund, the Tea Party Victory Fund PAC and the Black Republican PAC.
The PACs pay him to serve as treasurer and also pay Base Connect, a direct mail firm with which he is connected.
He also helped run a group that used a logo whose largest words were “Herman Cain for President” — the name of the official Cain campaign — despite not being the official campaign.
The PACs are especially successful when invoking the names of black Republicans, seemingly reflecting a desire by donors to see more conservative blacks in Republican campaigning.
The bipartisan FEC concluded that the groups named in West's complaint were in the clear because there were technically disclaimers that the entity was not a candidate’s campaign.
There are also fraudulent Democratic PACs, as seen in the Examiner's reporting on the 21st Century Democrats PAC, which gives nothing to candidates and fabricated a board made up of members of Congress -- who had never heard of it.