Montana Attorney General Tim Fox put the perpetrators of what he called a “scam fundraising call” on alert in January: They called the wrong guy. Fox’s warning, issued via Twitter, came after he answered a call from someone soliciting donations for an organization called Americans for Police and Trooper Safety. Fox ended the tweet by stating that an investigation had been opened.
“When Tim first got this call, it wasn’t apparent to him based off of their conversation that this was a [political action committee],” Montana Department of Justice spokesman Eric Sell says, adding that the call was masked with a 406 area code. “To Tim, it sounded like a very fishy charity or something like that.”
Turns out Americans for Police and Trooper Safety is a super PAC, a fact that Fox’s staff was unaware of until a call from Politico steered them to Federal Election Commission filings last week. And the group isn’t the only super PAC that’s targeted Montana residents in recent months. According to several pieces of literature obtained by the Independent, at least two other organizations have reached out to Montanans since last September seeking political contributions under the guise of charity.
During the calls, recipients were asked about their willingness to donate to the Police Officers Support Alliance and the Volunteer Firefighters Association. However, literature sent in response to contributions reveals that these groups are projects of the For a Better America (FABA) and Heroes United PACs, respectively. The mailers state that donations are “not deductible as charitable contributions” and will be used to support political candidates.
As super PACs, these organizations are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of cash from individuals and corporations. Super PACs can use that money to support or oppose candidates through independent expenditures, but are barred from contributing to or coordinating with candidates or political parties. They’re required to report all fundraising and expense activity to the Federal Election Commission.
FEC records filed over the past year shed considerable light on the activity of these super PACs. Heroes United — which also solicits contributions under the names Volunteer Firefighters Association and Association of Police & First Responders — has raised nearly $1.6 million in unitemized individual contributions, or contributions below $200. The group has raised just $20,820 in itemized contributions, which require disclosure of individual donor names. FABA reports $43,952 in itemized contributions and nearly $5.6 million in unitemized contributions. For Americans for Police and Trooper Safety, the breakdown is $1,565 itemized to $1.6 million unitemized.
None of these super PACs have reported any independent expenditures since they were founded last year. Rather, each has spent a majority of the money it’s raised so far on operating expenses. For example, FABA has spent $5 million on fundraising services, much of it paid to various telemarketing firms nationwide. Such operations-heavy outfits have attracted FEC attention before: In 2016, two FEC commissioners wrote a letter urging their colleagues to “attack” so-called scam PACs, which they argued were injuring donor efforts to support candidates by spending little to none of the donations received on political activity.
The Indy called several toll-free numbers listed on FABA and Heroes United literature last week. Two led to automated voicemail boxes with the same voice and message, including an option to be placed on a no-call list. Another led to a busy signal. Zachary Bass, listed as treasurer for Heroes United and another super PAC, the Community Health Council/Breast Cancer Health Council, did not respond to an email seeking comment. A FABA representative did respond by email, but declined to comment beyond stating that the organization will be making its first expenditures in the 2018 election cycle, and that expenditures supporting candidates “from both parties” this fall would “speak for themselves.”
Sell confirms that the Montana Office of Consumer Protection is investigating the call Fox received on behalf of Americans for Police and Trooper Safety, and that the DOJ has been contacted by several recipients of similar calls. Investigators were already able to get the number that dialed Fox “turned off,” Sell adds, meaning it won’t be able to call Montanans again. But that’s not likely to stop the solicitations.
“It’s really hard to track these people down,” Sell says. “They’ll use a [voice over internet protocol] number and you turn it off, and they’ll just go and buy five more.”