The operatives of the largest pro-Ben Carson super PAC have paid themselves and friendly contractors millions of dollars in donations from people who thought they were helping elect Carson, and have reinvested millions more into further fundraising efforts, building ever-expanding donor lists that they have already started renting out to other campaigns for profit.
The super PAC has raked in $24.7 million from thousands of individual donors since 2013, with a large percentage of those donations coming from retirees as a result of an aggressive direct mail fundraising campaign, but the operatives have spent only a small percentage of the funds on actual campaign activities.
The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee was formed in August 2013 by John Sousa IV and Vernon Robinson, Sousa as chairman and Robinson as campaign director. After Carson declared his candidacy, the PAC changed its name to “The 2016 Committee.” Neither Sousa nor Robinson have any kind of personal relationship with Dr. Carson, and Carson’s business manager denied any relationship between Carson and the two men back in 2014.
The two men have made roughly half million dollars for their work with the PAC, according to The Daily Caller’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.
Until he left in August 2015, Robinson was paid very well by the super PAC — twice. The super PAC spent hundreds of thousands to hire a consulting firm called “Tzu Mahan” for services such as “media strategy” and “new media strategy.” Robinson, it turns out, is the consulting firm and has admitted as much. By essentially hiring himself as a consultant, Robinson was able to double up on the donor-funded paychecks — one paycheck for directing the super PAC and another one for consulting it. By November 2014, he had pulled in $236,000 — a staggering amount considering the frugality needed to run an effective campaign. In the first eight months of 2015, Robinson banked another $162,000 from the PAC, bringing his total haul to nearly $400,000.
In August 2015, the super PAC hired Chuck Muth to serve as its communications director. Much like Robinson before him, Muth is getting paid on the side. As of December 2015, the campaign has shelled out $57,500 to Desert Fox Strategic Communications, the name for Muth’s one-man consulting firm. Muth charges up to $1,500 per day for his firm’s consulting services, in addition to his full-time position as the super PAC’s communications director.
Sousa, too, is making good money: the PAC paid him just under $100,000 in both 2014 and 2015. The super PAC also bought and distributed almost half a million copies of his book, titled “Ben Carson Rx For America.” The paperback book is available for $0.49 on Amazon, but the super PAC sells paperback copies for $7.99 and hardback copies for $19.99.
The committee also blew through another $930,000 in “salaries and consultant fees” during the last six months of 2015 alone. (The super PAC has nine employees.) FEC files show the committee outsourced those payments through the payroll company ADP, so it’s unknown where that money ultimately ended up.
The PAC spends an exorbitant amount on direct mail — a costly and oftentimes inefficient way to fundraise. Direct mail donors are generally the elderly or retired, who contribute relatively small donations through the mail. Most super PACs are funded by a few wealthy donors who can hold the PAC accountable by cutting off the money flow if performance expectations are not met. (Three of Ted Cruz’s super PACs, for example, are funded entirely by a single donor or family.) Individual small donors, on the other hand, have virtually zero influence over the direction of the committee.
According to FEC filings, just under half of the donors who gave more than $200 to The 2016 Committee last year are retirees, like the retired Minnesota farmer who gave $1,121, or the retired Florida nurse who gave $2,625. The FEC doesn’t require super PACs or campaigns to disclose the identity of donors who gave less than $200, so it’s impossible to know how many of the donors who gave less than $200 are retirees.
Sousa has concentrated a sizable amount of the super PAC’s spending on three fundraising organizations: Campaign Funding Direct Inc, Omega List and ECG Data Center. All three organizations are operated out of the same McLean, Va., apartment and are owned by same person — Bruce Eberle. Sousa previously admitted that he and Eberle are good friends. In 2015 alone, Sousa’s PAC paid Eberle more than $1 million for his services. In 2014, the super PAC paid more than $3.5 million to Eberle’s three organizations, ostensibly to raise more money to help propel Carson to the White House. Since John Sousa started the PAC, he’s funneled almost $5 million to his friend Eberle. Many of the largest payments to Eberle are vaguely marked as “agency fees.”
The PAC has spent some money on actual campaign activities, though. In 2015, according to FEC filings, it spent $256,653 on TV and digital advertisements. It also spent a little less than $54,000 on a handful of billboards in Texas and Louisiana. But that’s just a small fraction of the more than $9 million the committee spent in 2015.
The PAC recently started a petition demanding that the Republican National Committee punish Ted Cruz for his “dirty tricks” in Iowa. (It doesn’t cost anything to start an online petition.) In a phone interview with The Daily Caller, super PAC chair Bill Saracino suggested Ted Cruz could resolve the situation by simply giving Carson two delegates. Sousa and team seem to be looking to spin the “dirty tricks” narrative into donations.
On Feb. 16, the committee blasted out a fundraising email urgently seeking donors. If it weren’t for Ted Cruz’s “dirty tricks,” the email said, Ben Carson would have gotten second or third place in Iowa instead of fourth. (Saracino, admitted in a phone interview with TheDC that Carson actually outperformed the pre-caucus polls in Iowa.)
According to the email, the super PAC’s efforts were “crippled” by winter blizzards — a problem that could only be fixed by generous donations. “Please help today and please be as generous as you possibly can,” the email reads. The email includes a link to a donations page that begs readers to donate to the committee so their “grandchildren will live under freedom, not Socialism.”
Sousa’s biggest payday is likely still to come. By investing most of the donations back into fundraising efforts, the 2016 Committee has built massive donor lists. Just one of its lists has more than 110,000 donors on it. After the campaign is over, Sousa and company can rent their lists out to other organizations looking for new donors. In fact, they’ve already started doing exactly that. FEC filings reveal the super PAC earned more than $260,000 last year by renting out donor lists out through one of Eberle’s organizations — an odd move considering that it allows opponents access to their donors during a heated election cycle.
Saracino told TheDC that the PAC hasn’t seen “much of a dropoff in the last three months” in terms of fundraising. He also said he expects “[the PAC’s] donors will stay the course” in the months going forward. “As long as Dr. Carson wants to stay in this, we’re going to stay in this with him,” Saracino said.