Supporters of D.C. Mayor Bowser have started a political action committee that can raise unlimited money to serve the mayor's agenda.
D.C. has some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the country. For instance, donations to most council races are capped at $500. But a new group founded by supporters of Mayor Muriel Bowser has found a novel way to tap unlimited donations.
It's called the FreshPAC, named after the mayor's "Fresh Start" slogan, and its treasurer, Ben Soto, also served as treasurer for Bowser's 2014 campaign.
Soto says the purpose of the PAC, or political action committee, is to help advance the mayor's agenda.
"Mayors can't do it by themselves," says Soto. "In order to move a city with as many people as D.C. forward, you have to do it with outside help."
So what is FreshPAC doing differently? The PAC is taking advantage of the fact that D.C. campaign finance rules allow it to raise unlimited contributions from donors in 2015 because it's a non-election year in the District.
The group has already hauled in nearly $150,000 from a small number of contributors, namely real estate developers and other high-profile Bowser supporters such as Phinis Jones, who became a controversial figure during the mayoral primary for his involvement in a scandal at a troubled housing complex in Southeast D.C.
Many donations were for $10,000 — five times what a person or business can donate during a mayoral campaign, or double what donors can contribute to a PAC during an election year. All of this is legal under D.C. law, according to the city's Office of Campaign Finance as well as Soto.
"We like to think we are compliant with both the letter and the spirit of the law," says Soto.
PACs cannot be controlled by a candidate, and they can't coordinate with any campaign. But they can spend their money however they want. So what will the FreshPAC do with its money?
Soto isn't sure yet. FreshPAC spent roughly $30,000 on polling in July but he says the group will likely save most of the cash until election season next year, when several council seats are up for grabs. The funds could be used to help candidates he says "are supporting the mayor." (In those cases, the PAC would only be able to donate $500 per candidate.)
But the prospect of unlimited outside money pouring into D.C. elections has good-government activists like Bryan Weaver concerned.
"Every time we move to keep large amounts of corporate dollars out of the District's local elections, supporters of candidates look for an angle or loophole to bring it back to support their candidate," says Weaver, who led an unsuccessful campaign to ban corporate contributions in D.C. "The flood of dark money that gushes into D.C. politics today is a pollution of our local democracy."
Soto disagrees. He says D.C. has one of the toughest campaign finance laws in the country, in terms of donation limits and disclosure, and there is no coordination between the PAC and the mayor's office, he says.
"There are clearly boundaries," says Soto. "She and her administration can't play a role at all with our PAC. Where we spend the money and who we raise money from is completely independent from them."
But the mayor can help with fundraising, it turns out. Soto says the mayor attended and spoke at both FreshPAC fundraisers.
A senior official in the administration confirmed the mayor’s appearances at the fundraisers, but downplayed them, noting that it was not unlike what happens at the federal level.