The political fundraising entity run by David Bossie, the head of the controversial conservative group Citizens United and a Republican National Committeeman from Maryland who is close to President Trump, has come under scrutiny over the past week for its fundraising practices.
A joint report from Axios and the Campaign Legal Center found that Bossie’s fundraising organization collected $18 million over the last two years, but directed only a small portion, about 3 percent, to direct political activity, using most the rest of the money to solicit more funds, often by capitalizing on Trump’s image or Bossie’s relationship with the president. The article brought a rebuke from the Trump campaign.
A Maryland Matters analysis of the group’s financial activities found that a substantial portion of its overall direct political spending went to Bossie’s home state of Maryland, where prominent Republicans are standing behind him.
The 18-page Campaign Legal Center report concluded that Bossie’s fundraising entity, known as The Presidential Coalition, gave $425,442 directly to state and local campaigns since 2016. A Maryland Matters review of the coalition’s reports to the IRS revealed $93,000 on spending to Maryland candidates and political campaign committees. State beneficiaries included candidates for local boards, county executive and targeted General Assembly seats.
After the report was released last week, The Presidential Coalition released a three-page response, defending fundraising practices and attacking the Campaign Legal Center, a national political reform group that is frequently at odds with Bossie. Through his work at Citizens United, Bossie has challenged federal campaign finance limits – and the landmark 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision has unleashed unlimited political spending in elections.
In part, The Presidential Coalition’s response stated that the analysis “totally ignores the legitimate staff, infrastructure and other political activity costs associated with the organization’s work” and the higher costs of soliciting small-money donations.
Fundraising under fire
The Campaign Legal Center’s analysis focuses on the explosion in fundraising success by The Presidential Coalition since Trump was elected in 2016. That year, The Presidential Coalition raised less than $1 million.
But in 2017 and 2018, the numbers increased dramatically to $5 million and $13 million, respectively.
Solicitations from The Presidential Coalition feature Trump’s election in several ways, including photos of him, and, on at least one mailer, a return address label that features an image of the White House and the anagrammatic 1006 Pennsylvania Avenue address of Citizens United, which Bossie has led since 2001.
The mailers also frequently address Bossie’s relationship with the president; he served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager and is also Maryland’s national committeeman to the Republican National Committee.
Some of The Presidential Coalition’s solicitations in the past two years have promised copies of Bossie’s book “Trump’s Enemies” – co-written with the president’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski – if donors give over a certain amount, often $45.
The Presidential Coalition spent $445,972 on purchases from book retailers in the last two years. But The Presidential Coalition’s response to the Campaign Legal Center/Axios report said only “a small amount” was spent on his book, while the bulk of book premiums were for copies of “Trump’s America,” by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“TPC members are very excited to receive these books and DVDs,” the coalition wrote.
Most of the donations The Presidential Coalition receives are in small sums. About $12.2 million of the $18.5 million raised in the last two years came from donors who gave less than $200 per year and thus don’t have to be publicly disclosed on the coalition’s tax filings.
Of the donors who gave more than $200 in a year, a majority listed their occupation as retired and the average donation amount was still relatively small, $225.
In Maryland, The Presidential Coalition’s donations also came primarily in small-dollar amounts and from a number of donors who identified themselves as retirees.
In 2017, at least 70 Marylanders donated $31,106 through 180 donations to The Presidential Coalition.
In 2018, 127 Marylanders gave $55,383 through 265 donations.
The donations included:
- A retired man from Harford County who donated 16 times for a total of $1,626.
- A Carroll County retiree who donated a dozen times, in amounts ranging from $30 to $100.
- A woman from Carroll County who gave 11 times for $1,025 total.
There were a few large donors from Maryland, who gave donations greater than $1,000 at a time, including a retired woman from Owings Mills who made four donations of $6,300, $2,000, $1,000 and $250.
More than 57 percent of the donations from Maryland were for $100 or less.
The Campaign Legal Center report said the elderly can be particularly vulnerable to fundraising appeals and that the small donations solicited by The Presidential Coalition detracted from other political giving that could have had a greater impact on campaigns.
“…The Presidential Coalition’s ongoing activities … not only mean that vulnerable voters are getting misled, but they also mean that the conservative movement’s limited financial resources are being diverted away from more effective political organizations – or from President Trump’s own campaign,” the report says.
After the Axios story and report were published, Trump’s campaign condemned any organization that uses the president’s likeness deceptively.
“There is no excuse for any group, including ones run by people who claim to be part of our ‘coalition,’ to suggest they directly support President Trump’s re-election or any other candidates, when in fact their actions show they are interested in filling their own pockets with money from innocent Americans’ paychecks, and sadly, retirements,” the campaign responded in a statement to Axios. “We encourage the appropriate authorities to investigate all alleged scam groups for potential illegal activities.”
Support in Maryland
Support for Bossie remained strong among Maryland Republicans in the days after the reports were published.
The coalition has a history of supporting candidates in Maryland and Virginia specifically, and lists involvement in state races dating back to 2013 on the website stopmarylandliberals.com.
State Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick), a leading party fundraiser in the state, said Bossie has been helpful to conservatives in the deeply Democratic state for years, especially before the Republican Party found a figurehead in the ever-popular Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.
“There are very few people I can think of over the last 10 years who have been more consistently helpful to conservative candidates in this state than David Bossie,” Hough said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Bossie and The Presidential Coalition have bolstered Hough’s campaigns, and the senator said he meets annually with Bossie to talk about fundraising strategies for key races in the state.
In 2017 and 2018, The Presidential Coalition made 35 donations to 26 campaigns, including $5,000 to Hough.
Other notable donations included those to support Republicans in the state party’s “Drive for Five” effort to break the Democratic supermajority in the Maryland Senate last: Mary Beth Carozza ($6,000), Bill Dotson ($3,000), Ron George ($6,000), Craig Giangrande ($3,000), John Grasso ($2,000) and Christian J. Miele ($6,000). Only Carozza won her race, and she now represents the Lower Shore in the Senate.
Other members of the General Assembly received support in successful campaigns, including House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel), House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) and Sens. Justin Ready (R-Carroll) and Johnny Ray Salling (R-Baltimore County).
Szeliga was among the lawmakers contacted by Maryland Matters who offered support for Bossie.
“I’ve known Dave Bossie for many years,” she said in a written statement. “Dave is a true patriot and conservative leader who made history defending free speech in the landmark SCOTUS case Citizens United,” Szeliga wrote on Saturday. “I am not surprised that the liberal establishment is attacking him as we approach the next election. He has been very effective in helping elect President Trump and other conservative candidates across the country.”
Ready said Bossie and The Presidential Coalition have been helpful to his campaigns, boosting him as a young conservative in early races.
Bossie’s Maryland supporters also noted that an organization’s full impact can be more than just direct political contributions.
Bossie’s relationship with fellow Maryland Republicans has not been without controversy or tension, however. In 2016, Bossie ousted Louis Pope, a longtime stalwart of the state GOP associated with the party’s more moderate wing, to become Maryland’s Republican National committeeman. And he has been aggressively lining up Free State Republicans to support Trump’s reelection even as Hogan publicly ponders a longshot GOP primary challenge to the president.
Bossie’s four-year term as a national committeeman ends a year from now. He is eligible to seek reelection – and the decision on whether to grant Bossie a second term will be made at next spring’s semi-annual Maryland Republican convention.
‘Left-wing smear tactics’
Bossie did not respond to Maryland Matters’ requests for comment last week.
Neither Citizens United – where press questions about the report were directed – nor three Maryland companies that were prominent vendors for The Presidential Coalition, responded to questions about the coalition’s indirect support for candidates or the content of publications made on behalf of the coalition.
The coalition’s response to Axios said that its political activities include “internal membership activities” that aren’t subject to disclosure on state or federal campaign finance reports, and the coalition’s 2017 tax return claimed it spent $5.4 million on “political campaign activities” including “polling and surveying of members and the public, communications with members and the public on issues and matters relating to the appointment and election of individuals to public office.”
But the Campaign Legal Center’s report said evidence doesn’t back up such claims of indirect candidate support. The coalition’s mailers exclusively focus on raising more funds and not on calls to action on behalf of candidates and independent expenditures on behalf of candidates don’t show up in state or federal campaign finance reports, the Campaign Legal Center report noted. The telemarketing firms hired by The Presidential Coalition, which were paid more than $1 million over the last two years, also specialize in direct marketing campaigns rather than political fundraising or advocacy, the report stated.
“Simply put, there is a vast chasm between what the Presidential Coalition is telling its majority-small-dollar donors and how it is actually using the funds,” the report states.
The Campaign Legal Center suggests a number of solutions to monitoring The Presidential Coalition’s fundraising activities, which it says “fall into a legal grey area,” including limiting “personal use” expenses for 527 organizations like The Presidential Coalition, revoke the tax exempt status of such groups, or at the state level, requiring tax-exempt organizations to devote a certain percentage of donations to program activities.
While the Campaign Legal Center pointed out that states have been cracking down on deceptive fundraising and fraud practices in recent years, The Presidential Coalition said it is being “unfairly targeted by left-wing smear tactics because we are outspoken defenders of the President.”
“We will never back down,” the statement concluded.