By Carrie Levine, Center for Public Integrity
Liberals have slammed Priorities USA Action, the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC, for not raising enough money, but that didn’t prevent a pair of prominent Democratic operatives from scoring lucrative paydays with the group.
Priorities USA Action made the handsome payments to Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney—or companies connected to them—during 2013 and 2014, when the formerly pro-Barack Obama super PAC effectively went dormant, neither raising money nor spending its reserves directly on midterm elections.
What was Priorities USA Action doing? Spending nearly $2 million on expenses, including salaries, consulting fees, rent, legal fees, health care, and taxes, as it positioned itself to become the flagship super PAC supporting a Clinton presidential run.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars of that money were directed at Burton and Sweeney, former Obama White House aides who founded Priorities USA Action in 2011 to support Obama’s re-election bid.
The expenditures are striking in light of the current situation at Priorities USA Action, which is shaking up its leadership ranks amid reports of infighting and disappointing fundraising.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the super PAC expects to collect only about $15 million through the end of June—not an insignificant amount, but far less than the amounts reportedly raised by super PACs backing Clinton’s likely Republican rivals, including those supporting Jeb Bush and Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
The super PAC directly paid Burton $30,394 and Sweeney $24,781 during early 2013, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission. But these payroll disbursements ended by March 2013, around the time Burton left the super PAC’s staff.
Beginning in early 2013, Priorities USA Action began paying what would amount to $220,000 over the two-year period to Independence Avenue LLC, a limited liability company incorporated in Washington, D.C.
Incorporation records list Sweeney and Burton as the corporation’s only members, the Center for Public Integrity has found. Priorities USA Action’s payments to Independence Avenue LLC almost all went for “strategy and media consulting,” according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Priorities USA Action is the only federal political action committee that has paid Independence Avenue LLC for services, according to an analysis of reports filed with the FEC since the beginning of the 2012 election cycle.
In addition, Priorities USA, a sister nonprofit of Priorities USA Action that folded last year, paid Independence Avenue $150,000 for “communication and strategy” in 2013, according to the group’s final tax filing (PDF). An Internal Revenue Service filing indicates the $150,000 went to Sweeney personally.
The tax filing also shows Priorities USA, the nonprofit, paid $200,000 in 2013 to Global Strategy Group, where Burton worked as an executive vice president until he jumped to SKDKnickerbocker in January 2015.
Sweeney is also a partner at the Messina Group, the consulting firm started by Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and a former White House staffer. Messina is a co-chairman of Priorities USA Action.
The super PAC reported paying the Messina Group nearly $90,000 in rent during 2013 and 2014.
It’s unclear whether Priorities USA Action’s leadership overhaul will affect future paydays for Burton and Sweeney.
Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman for Priorities USA Action, declined to comment. Burton and Sweeney did not respond to requests for comments.
Other notable Democratic consultants likewise received payments from Priorities USA Action during 2013 and 2014, its period of near-dormancy.
Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who consults for Priorities USA Action, took in $240,000 from the super PAC during the two-year period, records show.
The super PAC reported paying about $127,000 during the 2014 election cycle to the Ashmead Group for fundraising consulting. Diana Rogalle, the president of the Ashmead Group, has also been a senior advisor to Priorities USA Action.
Overall, hundreds of millions of dollars flow through federal super PACs, which can be lucrative for political consultants.
“Whether it’s Priorities USA or [anti-Clinton] America Rising, there’s just a lot more money in the age of super PACs and a lot more people willing to spend it,” said Adam Smith, communications director for Every Voice, an advocacy group that wants to reduce the influence of money in politics.
Priorities USA Action did give $1.4 million to other political groups during the 2014 election cycle, with the bulk of the money going to super PACs that unsuccessfully spent millions of dollars in an effort to elect Democratic majorities in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
Priorities USA Action also urged its donors to give money to other liberal political groups during the 2014 election cycle, saying it didn’t want to interfere with other fundraising efforts supporting Democratic control of Congress.
The Priorities USA Action leadership shakeup is largely bad news for Obama loyalists who’ve previously worked with the super PAC.
The rejiggering most notably involves Guy Cecil, who at one point managed Clinton’s 2008 campaign, taking over as the super PAC’s chief executive officer and co-chairman of the board. Messina will remain with the group, but reportedly in a reduced role.
Buffy Wicks, Priorities USA Action’s executive director, is expected to take a role either with the Clinton campaign or the Democratic National Committee upon leaving.
Wicks is being replaced by Anne Caprara, the vice president of campaigns at EMILY’s List, a political committee that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.
This story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. To read more of their work on the influence of money in politics, go here or follow them on Twitter.