SALT LAKE CITY — When retired Pennsylvania corporate executive Murray McComus contributed $500 to a Utah political action committee, he believed his money would support Jon Huntsman Jr.'s presidential aspirations.
"It was to help his planning whether to run or not," McComus said of the donation he made to Horizon PAC in February, months before the former governor stepped down as ambassador to China and entered the race.
McComus, who has known Huntsman's billionaire industrialist father for years, said he was responding to an email asking for a contribution "to study the landscape, so to speak, for the Republican nomination."
But the longtime political donor also described the solicitation as unusual.
"It didn’t promote the candidate. It talked about the absence of a strong candidate. It wasn't descriptive. Huntsman, I felt, was the direction it was coming from," he said.
The Huntsman campaign, however, is insisting that's not the case, that the PAC that reported raising and spending more than $2.1 million had nothing to do with readying Huntsman's White House run.
That assertion has left political observers and even experts in campaign finance shaking their heads. While no one is saying there's a clear violation of federal campaign rules, questions are being raised about both how the money was raised — and how it was spent.
"You get crafty lawyers and campaign operatives who know what these rules are, and they may be speaking with great care," said Paul Ryan, an attorney with The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based political watchdog organization.
Ryan said the PAC "seems to be falling through the cracks of any federal campaign finance requirements" because Huntsman himself was not involved in the effort to explore his presidential bid.
"As long as there was no candidate at the time they were spending their money, it would seem to have some legal cover," he said.
Still, Ryan called it "bizarre" that a Utah-based PAC wasn't focused on Utah races, but noted, "just because it's bizarre doesn’t mean it's illegal."
The FEC's press officer, Judith Ingram, said candidates who spend money to "test the waters" before officially getting into a federal race do have to report their contributions and expenditures. But Huntsman, whose first FEC report as a candidate isn't due until October, wasn't the one exploring a possible run.
"Anybody who thinks there may have been a violation can always file a complaint," Ingram said.
The PAC contributed no money directly to any candidate, spending all but about $21,000 of what was raised on administrative costs, travel and consultants, including several who promoted Huntsman's candidacy early on.
PAC spokesman Jeff Cohen said contributions will be made later in the 2012 campaign cycle and that the consultants were hired to consult, research and strategize for the PAC "to lay the foundation for it to become and remain a force in politics for a long, long time."
Because the PAC was based in Utah, there was no limit on the amount that could be contributed. Individual donors gave as much as $250,000, with billionaire cosmetic mogul Ron Perelman giving $100,000 and Nike founder Phil Knight, $25,000.
Much of the money raised came from Huntsman family members and individuals connected to Huntsman Corp. Some small amounts were raised through the Horizon PAC website, which does not mention Huntsman.
That didn't stop donors who gave through the website several months ago from posting comments about their support for Huntsman.
Luke Pickett, of New Hampshire, who contributed $25, said in his posting, "I am giving in the hope that Jon Huntsman will consider entering the 2012 presidential race."
The controversy over the PAC has been picked up by a number of bloggers — including Comedy Central, which headlined its story, "Jon Huntsman's Pals are Awesomer Than Yours."
Political observers, though, said there's little chance voters will take much notice.
When it comes to campaign finances, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said, "a candidate would have to do something especially egregious for them to even bat an eye."
Scala said that is especially true this election cycle, since unlimited amounts of cash can be raised to support a candidate through so-called "Super PACs," as long as there is no coordination with the campaign.
Horizon PAC suggests yet another problem for the Huntsman campaign, which already has seen staff shakeups and may be having trouble raising cash.7 comments on this story
"It's all a little clumsy," Scala said of the fundraising effort. "Given that the rules were already pretty loose, to take that one step further, was it necessary?"
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank agreed there would be little impact on the Huntsman campaign.
"For most people, this is pretty 'inside baseball.' I think the only way it becomes problematic is if it becomes evident it was a clear violation of the rules," Burbank said.
He called the Huntsman campaign's attempt to distance itself from the PAC "a little silly. That seemed to be the whole purpose of why people were giving money."