Van Hollen camp jumps gun on outside group

Political fundraising solicitations are notoriously loose with the facts, but a recent blast email from Rep. Chris Van Hollen's campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat has received some attention for its claims — even with that low bar in mind.

The Aug. 26 email reports that a "shadowy dark money organization that refuses to disclose its donors is now spending secret money to elect" Van Hollen's opponent, Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga.


Van Hollen's campaign is referring to a recently formed political entity called Move Maryland Forward, which might be "shadowy," but which analysts said does not appear to meet the definition of a "dark money" group. And it's too early to claim the group is refusing to disclose donors.

The group, which has spent $31,500 on billboards, wasn't created until late July, so it did not have any donors to disclose in the second quarter of 2016, the most recent period for which campaign finance reports have been released.

All entities that file statements of organization with the Federal Election Commission, which the group has done, are supposed to disclose their donors eventually, said Paul S. Ryan with the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center. For Move Maryland Forward, that disclosure will be due in October.

The phrase "dark money" is used most often to refer to the funds handled by 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which are not required to disclose donors.

Still, the status of Move Maryland Forward is not cut and dried. A spokesman for the group, the Annapolis political consultant Kelley Rogers, said it intends to be a super PAC, an entity that may raise unlimited sums of money but which also must disclose its donors.

If that is the case, then the group has filled out its paperwork incorrectly — despite twice amending it.

The group is supposed to send a letter to the FEC stating its intention to operate as a super PAC. It has not done so. It is also supposed to check a box on a form acknowledging that it is a political action committee.

"It's impossible to tell what type of committee this is because the form has not been filled out correctly," Ryan said.

Rogers said the group will rectify any problems it finds, and said Move Maryland Forward will disclose its donors this fall.

One of the names listed on its initial paperwork, Scott B. Mackenzie, has come under considerable scrutiny for dozens of political action committees that appear to direct a significant portion of money back to companies to which he has ties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Mackenzie, who did not respond to a request for comment, is listed as a custodian of records and assistant treasurer.

Szeliga's campaign has said it has no knowledge of the group.

A spokeswoman for Van Hollen, an outspoken advocate in Congress for campaign finance reform, said the campaign relied on guidance from the FEC that indicated the group had not properly filed as a super PAC.

"But more importantly, Republicans should stop blocking Van Hollen's efforts to increase transparency," spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said in a statement.


—John Fritze