JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (TNS) — Groups that funneled $6 million of anonymous campaign money into Missouri to help Eric Greitens' campaign for governor in 2016 are now the subject of a complaint filed this week with the Federal Election Commission.
A liberal government watchdog called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, alleges two political action committees and two nonprofits violated federal campaign law by directing money into the 2016 campaign in such a way as to deliberately hide the identity of the donors.
"Millions of anonymous dollars were funneled through multiple organizations to help elect Eric Greitens while keeping the citizens of Missouri from finding out where the money was coming from. This isn't right and it isn't legal," said Jordan Libowitz, CREW's communications director. "Voters deserve to know how their elections are bought and paid for."
The complaint is the latest assault on dark-money organizations that helped fuel Greitens' rise in Missouri politics.
And it comes just days after a House investigative committee announced it was abandoning its probe of the former governor's campaign finances despite evidence the committee believes demonstrates efforts by Greitens to "illegally skirt donation limits and conceal the identities of major donors."
Greitens resigned June 1.
CREW's complaint focuses on the 2016 campaign and the actions of two federal PACs _ LG PAC and SEALs for Truth _ and two nonprofits _ American Policy Coalition and Freedom Frontier.
Attempts by the Kansas City Star to reach the organizations targeted by the complaint were unsuccessful.
The complaint points to the testimony of Michael Hafner, a former Greitens aide, who told the attorney general's office and the House investigative committee that Greitens' campaign explored methods to conceal the identity of donors as early as 2015.
Hafner testified that the strategy was "intended to get a group of people that didn't want to disclose who they were" to contribute "in a way that conceals donors." He had conversations in 2015, Hafner said, with donors in which the use of nonprofits to hide their identities was discussed.
Hafner left the Greitens campaign before any of the dark money flowed into it, and he's been clear he has no firsthand knowledge of any of the campaign's dealings after he stepped down in March 2015.
But CREW thinks the plans Hafner describes being laid out in early 2015 were put into place during the height of the 2016 gubernatorial campaign.
"Supporters of Mr. Greitens' campaign appear to have executed the planned conduit contribution scheme in mid-2016," CREW's complaint alleges.
In the lead-up to the 2016 Republican primary, Greitens got a $4 million boost from LG PAC.
Based in Kansas, LG PAC spent heavily on TV ads lambasting Greitens' rivals for the nomination. Its name appeared to be an attempt to convince the public that it supported former Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who was also seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
It was later revealed that all of LG PAC's money came from Freedom Frontier. By funneling the money through a nonprofit, which isn't required to disclose its donors, the true origin of the contribution remains hidden.
Despite Greitens' public assertions that there were no connections between his campaign and LG PAC, his top 2016 campaign adviser — Nick Ayers — filed financial disclosure forms last year revealing that he was paid by both Freedom Frontier and the Greitens campaign.
Ayers now is Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, and he is considered a possible replacement as President Donald Trump's chief of staff, if John Kelly leaves that post. Ayers' protege, Austin Chambers, was Greitens' top political adviser during his 17 months as governor.
SEALs for Truth
Shortly before the 2016 GOP primary, Greitens received what was at the time the largest single donation to a candidate in Missouri history — $1.9 million from SEALs for Truth.
On the day the campaign received the contribution, it made two payments totaling a little more than $2 million to a media-buying firm affiliated with Ayers.
Once again, Greitens denied any knowledge of where that money originated, despite the fact that he admitted speaking with SEALs for Truth's treasurer, Nicholas Britt.
Britt went through Navy SEAL training with Greitens.
Just as with LG PAC, all of SEALs for Truth's money came from a nonprofit — American Policy Coalition.
American Policy Coalition's website contains no information about the group. But the group is connected to an Ohio attorney named David Langdon whom the Center for Public Integrity labeled the "nexus of one of the nation's most mysterious networks pouring secret money into elections."
CREW, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has drawn the ire of Republicans in the past. They have noted the group's ties to David Brock, an ally of former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, and argued that the group exists to target GOP elected officials.
And CREW is no stranger to Missouri politics.
In 2015, it filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission asking it to investigate whether the American Conservative Union, a nonprofit best known for organizing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, acted illegally as a conduit to pass a $1.7 million donation to Now or Never PAC. That PAC was formed in 2012 to boost Sarah Steelman's unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri.
The FEC finished its investigation last year, concluding there was probable cause to believe the law was violated and imposing a $350,000 fine.
In March, CREW filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against Freedom Frontier and American Policy Coalition alleging the groups had failed to file tax returns.
Both groups are registered as 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations and are required to file annual 990 tax returns. According to the complaints, neither group has filed the required returns.