1 of 2
Bob Bennett

'Tis the season to give. So how would you like more than a quarter-million dollars to give to friends, who someday may be able to return the favor?

How would you like the heads of such organizations as Overstock.com, Sinclair Oil, Morton's restaurants, Amway and Humana, among many others, to line up to give you that money?

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is enjoying almost exactly that situation. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, is, too, but to a lesser extent. In fact, 88 of the 100 U.S. senators enjoy it to some degree.

They have what are called "leadership political action committees." Through them, they raise money to give to fellow politicians. That could curry favor if they ever run for Senate leadership positions, or if they need general favors.

Such PACs can be controversial. The watchdog groups Common Cause and Democracy 21 charged in a letter last year to the Federal Election Commission that, "Leadership PACs operate as a means to subvert the contribution limits in federal law."

How? The watchdog groups complain that donors who give the maximum amount to a senator's re-election fund can then still donate into the tens of thousands of dollars more during his or her term through his leadership PAC.

While money from the leadership PAC cannot legally be used to directly help re-elect its sponsoring senator, the watchdog groups said donors to it are still currying extra favor with the sponsor and trying to further his or her political power. (For example, Hillary Clinton complained this month that Barack Obama used his leadership PAC to spread money among influential politicians in early presidential primary states.)

The Deseret Morning News noticed a possible second way the PACs may help evade limits. Many donors who bump into donation caps for other senators also gave to the PACs for Hatch and Bennett. The Utah senators in turn then gave to those other senators, using money from limit-capped donors to help them receive beyond what limits may otherwise have allowed.

Big money

Hatch's organization is called ORRINPAC. This year, it raised $286,450 through the end of October. It gave $191,000 to fellow politicians and political groups.

By comparison, the PAC raised more — in a nonelection year for federal officials — than the $263,000 that Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, spent on his entire most recent re-election campaign.

Bennett's organization is called Snow PAC (in honor of Utah's famous snow and skiing). It had raised $153,000 this year through the end of October, about half of what Hatch raised. It gave $135,000 this year to other politicians and political groups.

By comparison, that was significantly more than the $101,000 spent by all Salt Lake City Council candidates combined in this year's municipal election.

Hatch's PAC gave between $5,000 and $10,000 each to 18 of the current 48 other Republican U.S. senators, even though none faced election this year. Bennett's leadership PAC gave similar gifts to 10 GOP senators, plus one GOP challenger running for the Senate.

Bennett's PAC also gave $10,000 to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, and Hatch's gave it $5,000. Hatch and Bennett each also gave $15,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Some big-name donors are helping to provide such gift money for Hatch's PAC. His donors include Earl Holding, owner of Sinclair Oil, Little America and Snowbasin ski resort; Patrick Byrne, chief of Overstock.com; Amway president Richard Devos, who is also chairman of the Orlando Magic; Morton's Restaurant Group chairman Thomas Baldwin; and Humana president Michael McCallister.

Many donors potentially have interest in Hatch's legislative work. For example, his PAC received more than $1.3 million this year from executives or PACs in the health-care industry. Hatch is a member of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees that industry.

The most that any identifiable group gave to Bennett's PAC was at least $55,500 from finance industry PACs. Legislation affecting that industry is overseen by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, of which Bennett is a longtime member.

Hatch formed his group "basically to help fellow Republican senators and candidates in their campaigns" and not to further his own chance at such things as leadership positions, said Dave Hansen, a Hatch campaign consultant and spokesman.

Bennett formed his also "to raise money to support other campaigns" and to do it without dipping into "funds raised for his (own) re-election campaign," said his press secretary, Emily Christensen. She added he does not plan to run for a future leadership post, so money from the PAC is not designed to further such an ambition.

Donation funnel?

Do the PACs allow end runs around donation limits?

Consider, for example, that Promise Healthcare CEO Peter Baronoff of Florida had given maximum-possible donations to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Senate re-election funds of John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Baronoff also gave Hatch's leadership PAC $2,500. Hatch's PAC gave donations to Romney, Cornyn and McConnell, so maybe some extra money from limit-capped Baronoff made it to those candidates via the donation to Hatch's PAC.

In fact, 36 donors to Hatch's PAC had also given maximum-possible donations to at least one candidate who also received money from Hatch. And 24 donors to Bennett's PAC did the same.

Hatch and Bennett say the money they receive, however, is not earmarked by donors for any other specific candidates. The senators say they choose who will receive the money and say their PACs are not pass-through funnels for others.

For example, Christensen said, "Sen. Bennett does not monitor the actions of other PACs or donors and was not aware of any additional contributions. Therefore, it is not a coordinated end run."

Hansen said money given to Hatch "comes from people who believe in him, and with no strings attached. He would not accept it if it had strings attached."

Both Hatch and Bennett say they choose to whom they will give the PAC money based on need, who requests it and how much it may help Republicans regain a majority.

Watchdog groups have also complained that while money from a leadership PAC cannot be used legally to directly benefit the politician who sponsors it, it may do so indirectly by such things as helping pay for travel (to PAC events) that may also help them campaign or do other political work at the same time.

For example, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., came under fire for having his PAC pay his wife more than $140,000 as a consultant, and for spending at least $40,000 on gifts to friends and supporters from such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co.

Bennett's Snow PAC reported spending about $8,000 this year on travel-related expenses. It also listed some other interesting expenses such as more than $300 for ski rentals, and $242 for snowmobile rental. Its reports did not say for whom such spending was made.

But Christensen said, "They are only for the senator and staff during PAC fund-raisers. The senator in the past has hosted a variety of fund-raisers that include golf, fishing and skiing activities. Although the senator is not a golfer or skier, he has been known to fly fish."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com