A once-mysterious $400,000 check written to a "super" political action committee supporting Mitt Romney's presidential campaign rekindled a nagging question this election season: Just how much disclosure is enough to satisfy transparency?
The Florida husband and wife behind the contribution were identified Monday as the beneficiaries of an investment fund and are among Romney's top Florida fundraisers. But up until then, the donation to the Restore Our Future super PAC -- which reported the contribution from an unknown Florida firm called SeaSpray Partners LLC -- left more questions than answers.
Inquiries about the donation intensified over the weekend after a Florida man who owned a similarly named company in Palm Beach told news organizations he never donated to the pro-Romney group. It turned out that Restore Our Future listed the wrong address for the actual SeaSpray donor and said it would amend its federal filings, but it refused to disclose more about the firm.
Welcome to the reality of recent federal rulings that have changed rules on how federal elections are financed. Those court cases, including the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United, gave a green light to corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of cash to support or defeat candidates.
The federal rulings upheld longstanding disclosure requirements, and super PACs that receive that cash still file periodic reports with the Federal Election Commission. But regulations require only basic information about a company be reported; as such, SeaSpray's history and background effectively remained anonymous.
"Citizens United has not only allowed unlimited corporate spending, but has also opened many loopholes in disclosure laws," said Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel for the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. "We see this when corporations give to transparent vehicles like a federal political committee. And this case underscores how porous the disclosure laws are."
An Associated Press review of financial documents found SeaSpray is, in fact, a financial fund managed by Boston-based Hellman Jordan Management. One of the firm's top executives, Gerald Jordan, and his wife, Darlene, received $200,000 apiece in unspecified "disbursements," company executive Susan Lynch told The Associated Press, and asked that the money be sent directly to Restore Our Future rather than to the couple's personal bank accounts.
"We were happy to do that," Lynch said.
Restore Our Future acknowledged the Jordans' involvement Monday after the AP confirmed the couple's role and raised questions about their involvement with the group. Super PAC spokeswoman Brittany Gross attributed the mistake to a clerical error and said the super PAC would file an updated report with the Federal Election Commission.
But earlier, Restore Our Future said it would not identify the donors and would only update the firm's address, which it said met federal disclosure rules. That set the stage for a detective-worthy whodunit among news organizations and watchdog groups that follow the campaign closely.
The revelations about the $400,000 donation -- and the super PAC's reluctance to identify such wealthy supporters -- illustrate the loosened rules overseeing the federal campaign finance system in the wake of a series of court rulings in recent years. In the current presidential campaign, most donors identify themselves, but in some cases corporate donors are able to disguise their names using limited liability partnerships.
"We've disclosed all the information that the FEC required," Carl Forti, the super PAC's founder and chief strategist, said last week after his group first posted the mystery $400,000 donation. "I can't tell you anything more about the company."
Indeed, the Jordans are hardly strangers to Romney and his presidential campaigns. The couple hosted a $50,000-per-couple fundraising event for Romney at their Florida home last week, and Darlene Jordan was listed in an invitation as a host of an Orlando fundraiser for the former Massachusetts governor last August.
The two have also offered financial support to Romney and the Republican Party. Gerald Jordan gave $2,500 to Romney's presidential campaign in June and April 2011, and Darlene Jordan contributed the maximum $30,800 to the Republican National Committee in December. Gerald Jordan also contributed more than $40,000 to a fundraising account for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible running mate for Romney.
Last summer, Restore Our Future refused to identify the source of its first $1 million contribution. Controversy flared until the secretive donor, a retired executive from Romney's old firm, Bain Capital, stepped forward and acknowledged the donation.
In its latest financial reports listing more than $8.6 million in donations in March, the super PAC supporting Romney listed large donations, including the $400,000 donation and a $250,000 donation from a Montana firm, Fair Oaks Finance LLC. State records show Fair Oaks is registered to Charles R. Schwab.
Restore Our Future also received a $1 million gift from Huron Carbon LLC. That firm's identity turned out to be the West Palm Beach headquarters of Oxbow Carbon LLC, a fossil-fuel processor and mining firm headed by William Koch, who had already given $1 million to the pro-Romney group.
Follow Jack Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum