Commentary: Thanks to Citizens United, big donors are throwing their weight around

The Sacramento BeeFebruary 9, 2012 

Unless you're steeped in Idaho politics, you've probably never heard of Frank VanderSloot. But the wealthy Republican businessman and people like him around the country are wielding outsized influence on the 2012 presidential election.

VanderSloot is part of a new breed of high-end campaign donor, who gives to and raises large sums for candidates directly, and contributes far greater amounts to super PACs established specifically to help elect their candidates.

By law, candidates cannot coordinate with the amped- up political action committees. But there's nothing to stop donors from giving to both. As a result, caps on presidential campaign contributions, which date back to Watergate-era reforms, have been rendered meaningless.

VanderSloot's candidate is Mitt Romney. His rival, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, likely will remain in the Republican race, thanks to $10 million from his billionaire benefactors, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. And President Barack Obama has plenty of super-rich friends who will supercharge his super PAC.

VanderSloot's bank account cannot match Adelson's. But in Idaho, VanderSloot is perhaps the single most influential campaign donor. Over the years, he has helped fund an array of candidates, including governors and Idaho Supreme Court justices, and has taken on varied causes, challenging rules restricting the sale of raw milk and attacking public school teachers unions.

In 2008, he stepped into California politics when his wife, Belinda VanderSloot, gave $100,000 to help pass Proposition 8, the initiative that banned same-sex marriage and is the focus of an ongoing constitutional battle.

In the presidential campaign, he is co-chairman of Romney's national and Idaho fundraising team, and has given $2,500 to Romney for President, the maximum that can be given directly to a candidate per election.

Idaho Falls and Boise are hardly Hollywood or Wall Street for political fund-raising. But in part because of VanderSloot, Romney raised $404,000 in Idaho in 2011, four and a half times more than Obama, and 19 times more than Gingrich.

All that is dust in a presidential campaign in which donors will shell out far in excess of $1 billion.

VanderSloot's real contribution came in August when he gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, the super PAC established by former Romney aides to help elect Romney.

Aided by a dozen million-dollar donors, and several others who gave five- and six-figure sums, Restore Our Future raised $30.1 million in 2011, and is using the money to air television ads pummeling Gingrich.

The new campaign finance system came about because of federal court decisions issued since the last presidential election that have dramatically altered federal election rules, not for the better.

In early 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned century-old law by ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions could donate to independent campaigns. Later in 2010, a federal appeals court ruled in Speech Now v. FEC that donors could give unlimited sums to independent campaigns. Those two rulings opened wide the money spigots and are making it easier to hide sources of big money.

Some donors conceal their identities under corporate shells. Something called Glenbrook LLC gave $250,000 to Restore Our Future, and offered the address of a Redwood City accounting firm. Entities called F8 and Eli Publishing, of Provo, Utah, each gave $1 million. The firms trace to a Utah attorney, according to press accounts.

VanderSloot used four different corporations to give his $1 million. Although he made the donations in August, they did not become public until last week, a delay allowed by the Federal Election Commission's antiquated reporting rules.

VanderSloot declined to talk to me, but told his hometown paper, the Idaho Falls Post Register, that he gave the money to counter Obama's labor support.

"When somebody has a lot of dollars, even on the state level, and somebody is trying buy themselves an election, we try to even it out a little bit," VanderSloot said. "(That's the) incentive for us, when somebody has got as much money as Obama has, to level it out a little bit."

In Idaho, VanderSloot more often than not is the one with the bankroll.

"More than anybody else in Idaho," Keith Allred, the 2010 Democratic-backed candidate for Idaho governor, told me by phone, "Frank VanderSloot exerts political influence through political contributions. There is not even a close second."

Allred saw the influence firsthand in October 2010, when VanderSloot hosted Romney, a fellow Mormon, who came to the state to stump for the Republican incumbent, Gov. Butch Otter.

Otter is a Catholic. Allred is a Mormon. Romney's appearance was intended to solidify support for Otter among Mormons. VanderSloot took the opportunity to question Allred's religious beliefs. Allred probably wouldn't have won in the Republican state. But he called VanderSloot's attack "rank hypocrisy."

Donors give to candidates for many reasons. Some believe in the candidates. Some have a business interest in the outcome. Most give for a combination of those reasons.

VanderSloot has a stake in what happens in Washington. His company, Melaleuca, is a multilevel marketer; independent sellers peddle the company's wares and make more money by recruiting other sellers. Some sellers have complained of rip-offs by some multilevel marketing firms, prompting the Federal Trade Commission to consider tighter regulation. VanderSloot fought the restrictions, which ultimately were rejected.

Business is good just the way it is. Annual sales top $1 billion, the company said recently. In 2010, Romney publicly congratulated VanderSloot for 25 years in business, declaring in a release: "Frank's vision and sense of social responsibility is second to none, and he never ceases to amaze me."

Romney almost certainly will be the Republican nominee, thanks to donors like VanderSloot and super PACs, the new way to get money into federal campaigns. VanderSloot and other super PAC donors are defining a new era in presidential politics.

In reality, however, the new way is a lot like the old way. It's the way of the Wild West with few rules. Voters should beware.

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