Ten Pennsylvanians influencing elections with money

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By Bill Heltzel
PublicSource

Ten wealthy Pennsylvanians, including a husband supporting his wife for political office and a gay man seeking equality, contributed nearly $9 million to their favorite candidates and issues since 2011.

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RICHARD MELLON SCAIFE

PublicSource, working with the Investigative News Network, identified the 10 biggest campaign contributors in the state using state and federal campaign databases.

In Pennsylvania, those numbers can lag by months because they are received as written reports and entered by hand. Most states receive reports of campaign contributions electronically.

For national campaigns, several of the political patrons still contribute the maximum-allowable $5,000 directly to candidates for the presidency, U.S. Senate and Congress. But now they can also write checks for as much as $1 million to Super PACs, the political action committees that can spend unlimited funds for political campaigns, as long as they don’t coordinate the spending with the candidates.

Pennsylvania campaign finance laws are even less restrictive. Unlike residents of most states, individuals here may contribute as much as they like directly to state candidates. That might explain why the top 10 spent more on state politics than national, by 55 percent to 45 percent.

So who are these people and what are they trying to accomplish?

The majority support Republican or conservative candidates and causes. Several founded their own businesses. Two inherited great wealth. Some are philanthropists.

Beyond that, one must examine their particular contributions to glimpse their motivation.

The state’s most generous contributor, for example, is Christopher Kane, 49, of Clarks Summit. The trucking, warehouse and logistics executive spent $2.25 million supporting the political ambitions of his wife, Kathleen Kane, who is running as a Democrat for State Attorney General.

Real estate investor Mel Heifetz of Philadelphia had one issue in mind, gay rights. He gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC that backs President Obama’s re-election.

“I’m a gay man and I support gay causes. This election is very important to my community,” Heifetz, 77, said in a phone interview from his vacation home in Miami Beach.

All 10 of the top political contributors are men.

But just outside of the top tier are three power couples – husbands and wives whose contributions, if combined, would have moved them into the top 10 list.

Donald and Susan Simms of Gibsonia donated to Republicans, Joseph and Marie Field of Bala Cynwyd, and David and Rhonda Cohen of Philadelphia gave primarily to Democrats. All three couples focused on national Senate and Congressional races.

The top 10 givers and the power couples gave $5.5 million to Republicans and $4.2 million to Democrats, for a total of $9.7 million.

Most are from the eastern part of the state. Only one, Richard Mellon Scaife, is from Pittsburgh.

Scaife, the owner of Trib Total Media is an heir to the Mellon banking and industrial fortune, with an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which lists the richest Americans each year. He is known for supporting conservative and libertarian causes, and this year he is funding pro-Mitt Romney committees.

“Mr. Scaife’s political contributions are made out of a sense of patriotism and to exercise his influence over the democratic process,” his lawyer, Yale Gutnick said. “Those ideals are primarily less government intrusion into private lives, a vigorous protection of the First Amendment, the separation of church and state, and a woman’s right to control her own health and destiny.”

Republican and conservative causes received 55 percent of the donations from the top 10 givers and were backed by seven of them. Democrat and liberal donations totaled 41 percent. Nonpartisan or uncategorized donations were 3 percent.

For instance, healthcare executive Rocco Ortenzio, 79, expressed his presidential preference by giving $750,000 to Restore Our Future, a Super PAC that spent $40 million working against Romney rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and at least $43 million against President Obama.

Easy state campaign financing laws may have helped state and local party organizations and single-issue causes.

Christian conservative Dr. Jack Templeton Jr., head of the John Templeton Foundation, gave $780,000 to the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania. Charter school management executive Vahan Gureghian gave $132,035 to the Montgomery County Republican Committee and $110,000 to the Republic Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth.

Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik are partners in Susquehanna International Group, which has used lessons from poker to build a successful broker-dealer firm. The two men spent $446,000 on groups that support vouchers for private schools such as charter schools. In 2010 their Students First political action committee contributed $4.9 million to pro-voucher gubernatorial candidate Anthony Williams, who lost in the Democratic primary election.

The megaphone

Barry Kauffman is executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, an organization that supports limits on campaign contributions.

“The people who make those kinds of investments in politics and government do so with anticipated outcomes in mind,” Kauffman said.

Those large donations are like a blasting megaphone that drowns out “the voices of many other people,” he said. “When you are drowning out voices, you are harming public discourse and, at the end of the day, biasing the decision-making process.”

He was speaking in general about large contributors and not about any particular donor.

Public officials will deny that they are influenced by campaign contributions, he said, but they readily admit that money means access. At the crucial moments in the political process, when votes are being considered and regulations are being written, Kauffman said, access wins the day.

Public officials also must spend free time currying favor with potential contributors rather than on research or talking with people about the issues they will have to vote on one day. “That diminishes the role of regular citizens,” he said.

Public debate also is inhibited by antiquated state practices, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. Most states require political committees to file reports electronically. Not Pennsylvania. As a result, reports are compiled manually and the source of a candidate’s financing is often unknown until after the elections.

He called for a comprehensive review of campaign finance laws and procedures to ensure more accurate and more timely reporting of campaign finances.

“If you know who is giving what, you can have a debate over what it means.”

The case for the free flow of funds to campaigns was made by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010. Previously, corporations and unions were prohibited from using their funds for “electioneering communications” for several weeks before elections. The court ruled that corporations and unions are associations of individuals, therefore they have the right to free speech under the First Amendment.

The Citizens United decision led to the creation of Super PACs.

How the study was done

Investigative News Network identified major campaign contributors for PublicSource by merging federal and state data. The Center for Responsive Politics collected the federal numbers. The National Institute on Money in State Politics collected Pennsylvania numbers. PublicSource researched each contribution with Federal Elections Commission and Pennsylvania Department of State records.

Some state donations are current only through mid-May because of the manual entry of data in Pennsylvania.

The PublicSource analysis does not include donations to non-profit organizations that are supposed to operate primarily for the promotion of social welfare. Because of vague Internal Revenue Service guidelines, some of those groups have poured money into political races. As tax-exempt charities, they do not have to name their donors.

An example is Crossroads GPS, formed by Republican strategist Karl Rove, which, as of August, had spent an estimated $42 million on political advertisements.

The Top Ten

1. Christopher Kane, 49, Clarks Summit, Kane is Able warehouse logistics, $2.3 million.

2. John Templeton Jr., 72, Bryn Mawr, foundation executive, $2.1 million.

3. Mel Heifetz, 77, Philadelphia, real estate, $1.1 million.

4. Rocco Ortenzio, 79, Lemoyne, health care, $1 million.

5. Vahan Gureghian, 57, Gladwyne, charter schools, $806,000.

6. Scott Wagner, York, Penn Waste, $370,000.

7. Daniel Berger, 64, Philadelphia, lawyer, $356,000.

8. Joel Greenberg, Bala Cynwyd, Susquehanna International Group, $348,000.

9. Richard Mellon Scaife, 80, Pittsburgh, newspaper publisher, $292,000.

10. Arthur Dantchik, Bala Cynwyd, Susquehanna International Group, $276,000.

The power couples

1. Donald and Susan Simms, Gibsonia, United Mining Equipment, and West Penn Allegheny Health System, $314,000.

2. Marie and Joseph Field, Bala Cynwyd, retired teacher and Entercomm Communications Corp. chairman, $308,000.

3. Rhonda and David Cohen, Philadelphia, lawyer and Comcast Corp. executive, $294,000.

For more information about each donor, go to powerplayers.publicsource.org.

Contact Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or at bheltzel@publicsource.org.

(Sharon Walsh, Emily DeMarco, Halle Stockton, and Reid R. Frazier contributed to this story.)

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