Republican Mitt Romney is laying the groundwork for a possible White House campaign in 2012, hiring a team of staff members and consultants with money from a fundraising committee he established with the ostensible purpose of supporting other GOP candidates.
The former Massachusetts governor has raised $2.1 million for his Free and Strong America political action committee. But only 12 percent of the money has been spent distributing checks to Romney's fellow Republicans around the country.
Instead, the largest chunk of the money has gone to support Romney's political ambitions, paying for salaries and consulting fees to over a half-dozen of Romney's longtime political aides, according to a Globe review of expenditures.
Romney founded the Free and Strong America Committee shortly after dropping out of the 2008 presidential primary. He filled its coffers by telling conservative contributors around the country that their money would be used to support Republican candidates and causes.
According to the Globe analysis, he spent $244,000 on contributions to congressional and other candidates between April and the November elections. He has spent more than twice as much on staff salaries and contracts to hire professional fundraisers, who are compiling contributor lists that will serve Romney well in a future presidential campaign.
In essence, Romney is financing a political enterprise that he can use to remain a national GOP leader and use as a springboard should he decide to launch another presidential bid for 2012.
Romney aides insisted that the primary mission of the Free and Strong America Political Action Committee is to raise money for other Republicans around the country and to promote GOP policies. The committee says that booster work included flying Romney to various districts to help congressional candidates, many of whom happened to support his 2008 presidential primary candidacy.
But the committee's track record of spending most of the money on other expenses, such as Romney's political staff, raises questions about written fundraising solicitations he has made that were mailed to potential contributors, including this one:
"It is more essential than ever that conservative candidates and organizations have the resources they need to get their message out to voters," Romney said in the fundraising appeal. "Because of your help, my political action committee ... is supporting over 70 candidates this election cycle. Your continued support today will ensure that they have the assistance they need to win."
Campaign finance experts say the Free and Strong America committee's use of its funds for Romney's political expenses is well within the legal restrictions set by law. They also note that it is not entirely unusual for high-profile politicians to use such political action committees, despite their appeals to donors like the ones Romney makes, to keep large sums for their own purposes.
"This is not uncommon and not illegal, but it is unfortunate and deceptive to tell donors their funds are going to help candidates when in fact a big chunk is used to further the career of the political person who created the PAC," said Paul S. Ryan, associate legal counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group in Washington that monitors campaign finance laws.
"The legal reality is contributor beware," he said. "It would be wise for donors to look at the track records."
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom argued that the Free and Strong America committee's contributions of $244,000 to other candidates represented a significant percentage of the committee's overall expenditures. Its "level of financial support was extraordinary," when compared with other national leaders of Romney's standing, he said.
But, despite the language of Romney's direct fundraising appeals to contributors, Fehrnstrom said contributing money to other candidates was actually secondary to its role of paying for Romney to make personal appearances around the country.
"The main purpose of Mitt Romney's PAC is to enable him to travel around the country on virtually a full-time basis to campaign and raise funds for candidates and to promote policies that will strengthen America," Fehrnstrom said.
Fehrnstrom said Romney campaigned this fall in 28 congressional districts, six U.S. Senate races, two state races, and that he appeared at 37 events on behalf of John McCain.
One of the Free and Strong America committee's largest expenditures was to a firm owned by Spencer J. Zwick, a close Romney aide, which was paid $221,794 from April to November. Fehrnstrom said Zwick takes no salary but uses the money paid to his firm to pay ongoing commissions to several Romney fundraisers who served on Romney's presidential campaign staff.
Another $250,000 went to pay salaries and consulting fees, including $115,000 for Romney's senior political staff Beth Myers, Peter Flaherty and Fehrnstrom all of whom had also served in top posts in the governor's office and in his presidential campaign. Zwick's firm paid longtime Romney fundraisers and political operatives Steve Roche and Donald Stirling hefty fees as a percentage of the funds they raised. The committee also paid $102,000 to a payroll and benefits management company.
The committee's biggest single expense went to a printing and direct mailing firm in New Hampshire, SCM Associates, which was paid $320,210, as of the last Federal Election filings that cover up to Oct. 15.
Although Romney raised dire warnings of Democrats "spending millions" to defeat Republicans last fall, the list of candidates who received funds is dominated by incumbents who were either unopposed or headed to an easy victory, and who also endorsed his presidential candidacy.
Qualifying for a donation from the committee did not necessarily depend on a candidate's need for financial assistance. U.S. Representative Rodney Alexander of Louisiana got $4,600 and his GOP colleague Lamar S. Smith of Texas received a $2,300 donation, although both had no opponents. They each had endorsed Romney in his presidential bid.
Mississippi's U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, who threw his support for Romney, was easily favored to win re-election, but he still got a $2,300 donation from the committee. Cochran won with 62 percent of the vote. Another Republican senator, Lamar Alexander, a popular Tennessee Republican who was under no threat of losing his seat, got a $2,300 check from Romney as he cruised to victory with 65 percent of the vote.
Romney's committee gave $2,300 to U.S. Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, another backer in his presidential race who faced minimal opposition and won re-election with 68 percent of the vote. Another Republican House member, Kay Granger, who has not faced any serious opposition in the last several election cycles, got a $2,300 check and went on to win with 67 percent of the vote. She, too, had endorsed his presidential candidacy.
Romney distributed another $180,000 to nonfederal candidates this fall from a pool of more than $1.6 million that he accumulated in state political action committees in a half-dozen key presidential primary states.