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Secrecy shrouds super PAC funds in latest filings

Newly disclosed details of the millions of dollars flowing into political groups are highlighting not just the scale of donations from corporation and unions but also the secrecy surrounding super PACs seeking to influence the presidential race.

Some of the money came from well-established concerns, like Alpha Natural Resources, one of the country’s largest coal companies, which is backing a group supporting American Crossroads, or from the Service Employees International Union, a powerful union allied with Democrats, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Some came from companies closely identified with prominent industrialists or financiers, like Contran, a holding company controlled by Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, a patron of a number of conservative groups and candidates, and Blue Ridge Capital, a New York hedge fund founded by wealthy investor John A. Griffin, a supporter of Mitt Romney.

But some checks came from sources obscured from public view, like a $250,000 contribution to a super PAC backing Romney from a company with a post office box for a headquarters and no known employees.

President Barack Obama continues to outraise all of the candidates seeking the Republican nomination by large margins when it comes to money that goes directly into campaign coffers. But the money race is increasingly focused on outside groups that are legally not allowed to coordinate directly with campaigns but pay for advertising and other activities that support particular candidates.

Much of the money disclosed this week went to independent groups supporting Republicans, giving them an enormous money advantage over similar Democratic groups in the first phase of the 2012 election cycle. Such donations were made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 and subsequent court rulings, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union contributions to political committees and made it possible to pool that money with unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals.

But the full scope of such giving is impossible to ascertain from federal campaign filings: Much of the money raised by the leading Republican and Democratic independent groups went into affiliated nonprofit organizations that are more restricted in how they can spend the money but do not have to disclose their donors.

The contributions have already helped the Republican Party’s elite donor class, who increasingly favor Romney, regain some control over the party’s nominating process. Many of the party’s top givers sent checks to Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney group, underwriting an advertising campaign that battered Romney’s Republican rivals even as Romney himself struggled to win the trust of the party’s restive conservative base.

Romney, who assailed Newt Gingrich in Florida last week for "working as a lobbyist and selling influence around Washington," also got a major boost from some of the Republican Party’s top corporate lobbyists, who raised more than $1 million in checks for Romney’s campaign during the last three months of 2011.

Patrick Durkin, a lobbyist for Barclay’s, raised more than $400,000 in contributions. Bruce A. Gates, a lobbyist for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, raised $275,000. And Austin Barbour, a Mississippi lobbyist and nephew of the state’s former governor, Haley Barbour, raised $210,700 in contributions.

Restore Our Future raised at least $5.8 million from corporations during the last six months of last year, along with $12.2 million from individuals. American Crossroads raised $4.6 million from corporations and $7 million from individuals. Priorities USA and two other Democratic-leaning super PACs raised about $1,835,000 from individuals, $1.3 million from political action committees affiliated with labor unions and other groups, and about $415,700 from other organizations.

Groups supportive of each party employed a technique that allows them to cloak the identities of many of their donors. Those groups, including Crossroads and Priorities USA, have affiliates that are organized as nonprofit organizations known as 501(c)(4) groups, which can raise unlimited money but do not have to reveal their donors. Donors wishing to remain anonymous have the option of making their contributions to those nonprofit groups, which raised tens of millions of dollars in 2011, according to officials at the groups.

"While we now know some names of some people giving megabucks, we know nothing about the funders of the nonprofits," said Ellen S. Miller, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for greater transparency in political giving. "We don’t know what we don’t know."

Even donors who chose not to give via nonprofit affiliates can find ways to guard their identities by giving through a limited liability corporation or other entity that is hard to trace.

For example, Restore Our Future received a $250,000 contribution in August from "Glenbrook LLC," which listed an address on Lagoon Drive in Redwood City, Calif.

The suite number provided on FEC records matches one occupied by a certified public accounting firm, Seiler LLP. But an official with the firm told a reporter who went to the address that it could not discuss its clients.

A search of corporate records revealed at least eight Glenbrook LLCs around the country. The only one registered with the California Secretary of State’s office is in San Francisco and is connected to a wealth management firm, Monte Vista Management. But Morton Pactor, who manages the firm, said in a telephone interview that his office was not connected to the donation.

The pro-Romney super PAC also accepted a $250,000 check last summer from Paumanok Partners LLC. The donor listed only a post office box in New Canaan, Conn., outside New York City, in campaign finance records.

A Paumanok Partners LLC is registered with the New York state Department of State with an address in East Northport, N.Y., but about a dozen companies appear in phone listings for the address, none of them Paumanok Partners.

Other corporate donations, while initially appearing opaque, were easier to trace back to the probable source after combing through corporate records. A contribution of $100,000, for instance, came from "Slocum and Associates" in Salt Lake City.

Records filed with Utah State Department of Commerce revealed the president of the entity to be Jonathan W. Bullen, a real estate investor who is also owner and president of Provo College, Eagle Gate College and Evolution Fitness. Bullen was a national finance co-chairman for Romney’s campaign in 2008. He did not return a call or email seeking comment about his donation.

In another example, "Pita Raleigh LLC" in Salisbury, N.C., contributed $50,000 to the super PAC in late December. Corporate and campaign finance records show the company’s link to Bill Graham, a Salisbury lawyer who personally contributed $50,000 to the Restore Our Future in late June.

He did not return a call seeking comment about the donation.

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