My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
It is not an uncommon act. Sleazy politicians will often form political action committees whose real purpose is to put money in the politicians’ and their cronies’ pockets. They are usually fairly easy to spot because they spend a lot of money on things like staff, office facilities, fundraising, travel, meals, etc. and very little on the actual stated purpose of the PAC. This is why it was fairly easy to identify Russ Feingold’s Progressives United PAC as one of these sham slush funds for its sleazy founder.
When Feingold lost his bid for a fourth term as Wisconsin’s United States senator to Ron Johnson in 2010, he immediately created Progressives United PAC with the stated mission to, “empower Americans to stand up against the exploding corporate influence in our elections by directly or indirectly supporting candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals.” I guess that Feingold could not find many candidates who support his progressive ideals, because, as first reported by Dan Bice in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feingold’s PAC has spent less than 5 percent of the $7.1 million it has raised since 2011 on candidates or political parties. You can guess where the rest of the money went.
Much of the money went to pay the salaries of longtime Feingold staffers who found themselves out of a job when their boss failed to win the support of the citizens of Wisconsin for a fourth term. Nine of Feingold’s former U.S. Senate and campaign staffers drew salaries or consulting fees from the PAC for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Overall, Progressives United PAC and its sister nonprofit, Progressives United Inc., spent $2.2 million on compensation for employees between 2011 and 2014. Feingold has used his PAC to keep his loyal cronies fed and close so that he can easily transition them into his campaign now that he is gearing up for another run for his old job.
Feingold himself pocketed a lot of cash from Progressives United PAC and Inc. He was paid $77,000 for part-time consulting and strategic management. The PAC also spent more than $42,000 to buy copies of Feingold’s book — including 100 leather-bound versions. It also appears, according to Wisconsin Watchdog, the PAC picked up $23,000 worth of Feingold’s rent for his Washington, D.C. pad.
The money put directly into Feingold’s pocket does not count the stylish traveling he did using PAC funds. During the time that Feingold was being paid as an adviser for the PAC, it spent more than $40,000 on travel expenses, including stays at swanky hotels and meals at the finest restaurants in the country. Clearly, Feingold has moved past his “everyman” image of the 1990s and is cashing in to enjoy the best that political payback has to offer.
All of this money was raised and spent, remember, with less than 5 percent of the monies raised going to the actual purpose for which it was raised. If Progressives United were a charity or business, its behavior and spending habits would be scandalous.
Still, Feingold’s Progressives United did not do anything illegal. Nor did it do anything particularly unusual in the annals of politics. Why does it matter?
It matters because Feingold is running for office again and asking for our vote. During his term as a U.S. senator, he cultivated an image as a champion of good government. He attempted to ban all spending by PACs in 1995. He authored the horrible McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which was largely ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. He has spent his entire career crooning about corruption and money in politics. It has been his stock and trade.
Now we all see Feingold for who he really is — just another sleazy politician trading false promises for cash.
Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.