The bizarro tale of a phantom super PAC — and our sleuthing to find it
Americans for Progressive Action USA filed elaborate campaign finance reports, listing vendors that were never paid and ads that never ran.
A new super PAC made a splashy entrance onto the Senate battleground scene last week, reporting millions in spending backing Democrats in key races. There’s just one problem: The ads don't exist.
The group, Americans for Progressive Action USA, filed campaign finance reports showing more than $2.5 million in advertising and associated costs across a half-dozen Senate races last week. But six ad makers and advertising platforms listed in the filings said they’ve never heard of the super PAC and have no records of doing business with it.
Google and Facebook’s public advertising databases show no hint of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Americans for Progressive Action USA supposedly spent with them.
GMMB, a major Democratic consulting firm listed as having received $318,000 from the group, said a reporter’s inquiry was the first it had heard of the super PAC. Two other Washington-based vendors listed by the super PAC — Targeted Media Victory and Dixon Gruper — have no trace of previous activity and aren’t registered as corporations in D.C., according to a search of the city’s Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs’ database.
It is not unheard of for people to make false filings with the FEC. One prankster in 2016 became a brief internet phenomenon after filing paperwork for a candidate named “Deez Nuts.” But more than a dozen political operatives and campaign finance watchdogs contacted for this story were baffled why someone would file apparently made-up spending reports with the FEC.
Americans for Progressive Action USA isn’t following the traditional M.O. of scam PACs, which typically prey on small-dollar donors by convincing them they're giving money to support a political cause when the money actually lines the pockets of the PAC's operators. But filing detailed FEC reports could be an attempt to create the appearance of credibility for some other means.
“I’ve seen cases when candidates reported all these fake donors and all these fake expenses … so they can come out and say they raised all this money. Money begets money,” said Nancy Watkins, an experienced Republican treasurer of political committees. “There’s very wealthy people who are easily fooled.”
Watkins was the treasurer of Americans for Progressive Action, a Republican group that waded into the 2013 special Senate election in Massachusetts. That similarly named group closed up after the election and has no affiliation with the mysterious super PAC.
Extensive efforts to reach Americans for Progressive Action USA were unsuccessful.
The phone number listed in FEC filings for the group’s treasurer, Evan Jones, is disconnected. When POLITICO sent an email to an iCloud address listed on the FEC report seeking more information on the group, Jones responded hours later with an email address from the domain ProgressActionUSA.org, saying someone working on a communications team would be in contact. But then Jones went silent, and multiple emails to him and the communications team he referenced seeking an explanation of the group’s filings went unanswered.
There is no active website located at the ProgressActionUSA web address, and registration information for the website indicates it was registered via proxy on the day a reporter initially reached out for comment. Additionally, a Twitter account representing itself as belonging to the super PAC did not respond to tweets directed toward it, and has since made itself private. The website linked in the Twitter account’s bio was different from the one the email was sent from, linking to a site for a PAC called Progressive USA.
Progressive USA said it had no affiliation with Americans for Progressive Action USA, either. “Definitely not us, mistake that they have linked to our webpage,” a representative for the group said.
Other vendors listed on Americans for Progressive Action USA’s filing said they’d never heard of the organization, either. BlueWest Media founder Mary Wittemyer — whose firm was listed as the recipient of $109,000 for ad production and an ad buy — contacted the Federal Election Commission after being notified of the filing. Felicia Greiff, a spokeswoman for the television ad firm Cadent, also said it had no business relationship with Americans for Progressive Action USA.
The super PAC also reported over $870,000 worth of spending to three major tech firms: Facebook, Google and Verizon. Neither Facebook nor Google’s public databases of political ads that run on their platforms included evidence of spending from Americans for Progressive Action USA.
As for Verizon, “I checked and we have no idea what this organization is or whether it’s real,” spokesman Rich Young said. “As such, we’ve done no advertising with it; that’s if the PAC even exists.”
Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm, also found no evidence of any television buys from the group.
There are other irregularities. Three other listed vendors lack an internet presence or any sign of activity. One of the vendors, Targeted Media Victory LLP, seemingly mimics the name of a well-known Republican consulting firm and the other, Dixon Gruper LLC, lists the former headquarters of the FEC as its street address, with an incorrect zip code.
Americans for Progressive Action USA also said it banks with a JP Morgan Chase branch in Dallas, but lists a zip code for a different city in its filing.
Americans for Progressive Action USA lists three donors from Texas in its only quarterly fundraising report, who reportedly gave $4.8 million combined to the organization in March. But none of the givers could be tracked down. One of them was described as an “attorney investor” for the American Civil Liberties Union, but a spokesperson for the group said it had no association with anyone by that name.
The FEC created an internal policy in 2016 that allows the commission to follow up and flag filings with “possibly false or fictitious” information, noted Adav Noti, the senior director for trial litigation and chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center and a former FEC lawyer.
Myles Martin, a spokesman for the FEC, said the commission cannot comment on the activities of a specific committee but said that policy was still in place. “If someone suspects that a violation of campaign finance laws has occurred, they may file a complaint with the Commission,” Martin wrote in an email. “Note that Commission disclosure forms specifically state that submission of false, erroneous, or incomplete information may subject the person signing the report or statement to enforcement penalties.”
Paul S. Ryan, a vice president for the good governance group Common Cause, said he’s seen all sorts of shenanigans in a long career immersed in campaign finance issues. But this one’s a true head-scratcher, he said.
“It is odd,” Ryan said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this is a first for me.”