The committees operate free of the contribution limits imposed on
the candidates but are supposed to remain independent of them. The
reality is much more complicated.
When Mitt Romney's presidential campaign needs advice on direct mail strategies for reaching voters, it looks to TargetPoint Consulting. And when the independent "super PAC" supporting him needs voter research, it, too, goes to TargetPoint.
Sharing a consultant would seem to be an embodiment of coordination between a candidate and an independent group, something prohibited under U.S. law. But TargetPoint is just one of a handful of interconnected firms in the same office suite in Alexandria, Virginia, working for either the Romney campaign or the super PAC Restore Our Future.
Elsewhere in the same suite is WWP Strategies, whose co-founder is married to TargetPoint's chief executive and works for the Romney campaign. Across the conference room is the Black Rock Group, whose co-founder -- a top Romney campaign official in 2008 -- now helps run both Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, another independent group that spoke up in defense of Mr. Romney's candidacy in January. Finally, there is Crossroads Media, a media placement firm that works for American Crossroads and other Republican groups.
The overlapping roles and relationships of the consultants in Suite 555 at 66 Canal Center Plaza offer a case study in the fluidity and ineffectual enforcement of rules intended to prevent candidates from coordinating their activities with outside groups. And there has been a rising debate over the ascendancy of super PACs, which operate free of the contribution limits imposed on the candidates but are supposed to remain independent of them.
In practice, super PACs have become a way for candidates to bypass the limits by steering rich donors to these ostensibly independent groups, which function almost as adjuncts of the campaigns.
While insisting that the tangle of connections does not violate any laws, Alexander Gage, TargetPoint's founder, said he understood how it could look "ridiculous." His own firm had taken steps, he said, to prevent improprieties, including erecting "a firewall" separating employees who work for the Romney campaign and the super PAC.
"We go to great lengths to make sure that we meet all legal requirements," he said. "I have removed myself personally from working on either Restore Our Future or Romney stuff because of this sort of potential conflict of interest."
The prohibition against candidates working in concert with independent political committees has its roots in Watergate-era reforms intended to prevent large donors from gaining improper influence over elected officials. But it has taken on added significance in the wake of recent court decisions that opened the spigot for unlimited contributions to the independent groups.
Super PACs have collected more than $100 million so far, much of it from a relatively small collection of well-heeled individuals or companies who are free to give millions to these outside groups but no more than a few thousand dollars to a candidate's own committees. Those unlimited contributions are fueling a barrage of negative advertising in the Republican primaries.
But while the Federal Election Commission has established elaborate, though narrow, guidelines for determining whether the
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