Swallow the Money, Part 3 of 3

by Joe Fitzgerald

VPAP and CFReports let you go from “How about that?” to “Oh, my God!” in 5.2 seconds. They’re attractive to the kind of nerds who used to go through the encyclopedia or the World Almanac. Yes, I did. Why do you ask?

One local PAC became a subject for a dive into CFReports and VPAP when someone asked if it was true they paid for health insurance for one of their principals. The answer is that with Virginia’s campaign finance reporting rules, it’s hard to say.

VPAP and CFReports are explained in Part 1 of this series. A PAC, as explained there, is a political action committee. It raises money from political donors and spends it on political candidates or causes.

That cause for Rural Ground Game, RGG, is electing rural Democrats. The perceived need for the PAC is the myth that the Democratic Party ignores rural areas and therefore doesn’t win rural elections. The actual case is that Democrats don’t win rural elections because rural voters vote overwhelmingly Republican, but the myth is popular among those who run better against their fellow Democrats than against Republicans.

Someone once quipped that the Catholic Church set out to do good, and did very well indeed. You could say the same about RGG. The church set out to save souls and wound up the largest landowner in the world. RGG set out to elect rural Democrats and wound up raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the three years ending with 2023’s third quarter, RGG took in $679,000 and apparently paid out two-thirds of it in salary and benefits to itself, that is, to the people raising the money. The word “apparently” could be replaced with sounds-like, looks-like, seems-like, smells-like. If those sound like phrases from a game of charades, you’re beginning to understand Virginia’s campaign finance laws. Those laws say you can raise money from whomever you want and pretty much do whatever you want with it, so long as you report it.

There’s some wiggle room in that reporting requirement, but picture an anaconda and not a rat snake. For instance, two-thirds of RGG’s money went to an outfit called Gusto, which handles salary payments. That’s all we know. Contractor payment: $454,000. Some of that, $65,000, may have gone back out to campaigns. That leaves $389,000 that went somewhere. The numbers are getting to the point where they’ll glaze the eyes of a non-math person, but it’s worth adding that RGG paid $63,000 for health insurance. The required state reports don’t say for whom the health insurance was funded.

Although many people think of PACs as giving money to campaigns, RGG doesn’t do that. The group’s reports list $62,000 worth of “in-kind” donations (described in Part 1). At least $7,500 of that went to a candidate who’s still wondering what the group did for them. RGG’s donations appear to be in-kind, and not actual dollar donations to candidates. Regardless of the type of in-kind work RGG is doing, its track record is not great. It hasn’t won many campaigns, if any, or you could say the campaigns it has supported have lost, depending on where you want to put the blame.

A lot of what follows is numbers, taken from CFReports and VPAP. The state’s campaign finance laws let you do pretty much whatever you want so long as you report it. But the reporting can be vague and hide a multitude of errors or omissions. In-kind donations to Sparrow for a bow and arrow is a full and complete line in the table, but it’s one of 100 rows and it doesn’t tell you who killed Cock Robin.

Rural Ground Game took in $605,000 in contributions and $74,000 listed as income (more on the distinction between the two below) in the roughly three years ending with the most recent (pre-12/7/23) reports examined for this report. That’s a total of $679,000. Of that total in, $649,000 was paid back out. None of that total out went to a political campaign, according to the reports. The reports do not list any in-kind donations, although individual campaigns list $62,000 worth of in-kind donations from RGG, the majority of it listed in large round numbers with vague descriptions of the service rendered.

There is nothing in the reports in detail or in general that indicates any violation of campaign law. At the same time, there is little or nothing to indicate what services were provided by RGG to the Democratic Party or its candidates’ campaigns. I haven’t compared RGG to any other PAC or vendor, so it is uncertain if this mix of income and expenditure, and the relative dearth of detail, are normal.

Of the $74,000 in income listed, 98 percent of it came from three delegate campaigns. Two of the amounts are listed as payroll, and a third as consulting. There are also entries for contributions from campaigns, although the distinction between income and contributions is not clear.

Much of the monetary contributions to RGG come from other PACs, with roughly a third of it from two groups, Sixteen Thirty Fund, and Clean and Prosperous America. Seven percent of the total comes from three local donors. There is of course no way of knowing what the donors believe their money is being spent for, or what efforts they may make to monitor any RGG expenditures.

Among those giving $1,000 or more in aggregate over the three years, there are 47 individuals, 9 political action committees, 13 campaigns, and 7 local committees, including Harrisonburg and Rockingham. This totals to $544,000, or 89 percent of the total donations. Individual donors gave an aggregate $197,000, with just two local residents giving $38,000 of that total. PACs gave $273,000, campaigns gave $58,000, and local committees gave $16,000.

The largest outlay from RGG is to Gusto, with $454,000 listed as contractor payment. Gusto appears to handle payroll transactions. If that amount is all payroll, and if the $65,000 in income from campaigns goes to campaign employees through Gusto, then $389,000 is being paid out by Gusto elsewhere. There is no way to know if that money is paid to RGG’s employees, or how many employees there are, or what exactly they do. Other expenditures include $63,000 to Anthem/Blue Cross, presumably for health insurance for employees, although it’s not clear if that is for RGG employees or campaign employees. In all, $517,000, 80 percent of RGG expenditures, goes to Gusto and Anthem in this period.

With the amounts listed here, and an additional report going through the end of the year, RGG has raised three quarters of a million dollars from donors large and small over three years. Figuring out exactly where that money went is as difficult as figuring out how Matt Cross’s school board campaign (see Part 2) could file more than 30 corrected reports and still have omissions. Hal Halbrook as Deep Throat famously said to follow the money. In Virginia, that remains difficult.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. Republished with permission from Still Not Sleeping.