Mary Altaffer / AP

Palin’s PAC burns through cash to sustain itself

Records show former Alaska governor’s fundraising operation spends more on its own operations than on backing candidates

Sarah Palin may be back in the campaign season headlines after her endorsement of Donald Trump, but the former Alaska governor's once robust political action committee is flaming out: Palin's appetite for luxury travel and pricey consultants has depleted its cash reserves to historically low levels, a Center for Public Integrity review of new federal records indicates.

Many PACs would love to have the $380,000 that remained in SarahPAC’s coffers as of Dec. 31. last year, but that’s the smallest cash amount the group has had on hand since mid-2009, just after Palin formed SarahPAC after her failed vice presidential bid. As recently as mid-2014, SarahPAC sat on $1 million.

The reason for the shrinking war chest is that SarahPAC is simply burning through more money than it’s bringing in.

During 2015, SarahPAC expenditures ($1.4 million) outpaced income (about $950,000), federal records show. And the $457,459 SarahPAC reported raising from July 1 through Dec. 1 represents its smallest half-year haul since its formation in early 2009. Meanwhile, conservative politicians’ campaigns didn’t receive a dime of SarahPAC’s heavy spending during the second half of 2015, while only a handful of lawmakers directly received cash during the first half of 2015. 

That news might surprise Palin supporters, who she urges to “chip in $25 today to help us stack Congress with true conservatives” while asserting that SarahPAC is “working hard to support and elect conservative leaders.” (Before endorsing Trump, Palin pointed to Sen. Ted Cruz’s praise for SarahPAC.)

Direct contributions are not the only way for PACs to back political candidates, of course. Independent expenditures often support a candidate’s campaign for office through television, radio, digital or other forms of advertising. But SarahPAC reported no independent expenditures during 2015.

SarahPAC officials did not return requests for comment.

So where did SarahPAC’s money go? Mostly toward efforts that supported Palin’s travels or helped SarahPAC sustain its own existence.

The PAC’s expenditures from July 1 through Dec. 31 include:

• $248,750 on various consultants, including those providing fundraising, research and logistics services.
• $160,141 on fundraising, direct mail and related website management, including by HSP Direct, a Virginia-based firm that describes itself as an “agency
• $84,789 on postage.
• About $48,336 on travel, lodging and related services. When Palin traveled to Washington, D.C., in September to appear at a rally alongside Trump and Cruz, her PAC covered a $4,700 bill at the Hotel George. SarahPAC also spent thousands of dollars on vehicle rentals from companies such as BAC Transport of Alaska, which features a fleet of high-end SUVs and limousines.
• $30,000 on two clerical staffers.
• $18,000 on speechwriting. Aries Petra Consulting, a small firm formed in Virginia and operating from Los Angeles, provided the services. Some political observers might argue Palin hasn’t gotten her money’s worth. Among the gems from Palin’s Trump endorsement speech: “Well, and then, funny, ha ha, not funny, but now, what they’re doing is wailing, ‘Well, Trump and his Trumpeters, they’re not conservative enough.’” And on U.S. policy in the Middle East: “You quit footing the bill for these nations who are oil-rich, we’re paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries. Where they’re fighting each other and yelling ‘Allahu akbar,’ calling jihad on each other’s heads forever and ever.”

SarahPAC’s most dedicated donors of late 2015 — those giving more than $200 — are elderly: More than 3 in 5 such contributors listed their occupation as retired or some variation thereof. They are most likely to hail from California, Texas or Florida.

But small-dollar donors, who don’t have to publicly reveal who they are or what they do, provided the lion’s share of SarahPAC contributions during late 2015.

To woo them, SarahPAC offers incentives such as an autographed copy of Palin’s book “Sweet Freedom: A Devotional” for those who give at least $75, while those  who give $100 take home a plush “SarahPAC mama grizzly bear” toy.

Many of those donations — $22,325 in all during the second half of 2015, federal records show — funded SarahPAC’s purchase of Palin’s own book and those grizzly bear toys.

This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.

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