After a failed run for U.S. Congress in 2016, Harold Russell Taub turned his energy to political fundraising. Namely, soliciting donations to two political action committees (PACs) he created.
Using a list of donors who had given to similar causes and attaching the name and image of a former secretary of the Navy to his efforts, Taub successfully solicited more than $1.6 million in donations. Department of Justice charges show there were several problems with his PACs, however.
First, Taub never registered them. PACs pool contributions from donors and then contribute that money to support or defeat a candidate for office or further a cause or policy position. Election laws mandate that they be registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Second, the former Navy secretary wasn’t even part of the PAC. “Taub was using his name and likeness without the official’s permission,” said FBI Special Agent Eric Miller, who investigated the Taub case and now supervises a federal public corruption squad out of the Washington Field Office.
There was still another element to Taub’s scheme. “He told donors that 100% of their contributions were going to the cause when, in fact, he was spending that money on personal expenditures—things like excessive travel, wine, cigars, trips to Las Vegas, gambling,” Miller said.
After pleading guilty to wire fraud and willfully violating the Federal Election Campaign Act by operating fraudulent and unregistered political action committees, Taub was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison. He was also ordered to pay more than $1.1 million in restitution to the victims.
There are many reputable, well established PACs that are properly supporting causes and candidates. But Miller warns that it is easy for a fraudster to establish a group, create a website, and begin asking for contributions.
“It’s fairly easy to start reaching out to potential donors to say, ‘We are backing this candidate or this political issue—please donate,’” Miller said. “The groups can look and sound legitimate, and that’s one of the tough parts of keeping people from being victimized. The red flags aren’t always obvious.”
The FBI is seeing an increase in reports of potentially fraudulent PACs, and Miller said donors should be on high alert if approached by a new group. He also recommends people take these steps to make sure their donation is going where they intend it to go:
- Visit the FEC’s website and search the organization’s name to see if the PAC is registered. If it is not registered, it is not legal.
- Check where the PAC is spending its money. If the PAC is registered and filing its quarterly reports as PACs are mandated to, a donor can search their “disbursements” on the FEC website. Look to see what vendors it is using. Often, in a scam PAC, you will see the vendors are also associated with the operators. That should be a red flag. Similarly, if you see the same operator running multiple PACs, that can be an indicator of a scam.
- Be wary of groups with names that are similar to more established organizations. Check to see how long the PAC has been around. It is, of course, normal for a group supporting a new candidate for office to be recently formed, but the candidate’s official website will have the best information on how to give.
- Taking money from another person and donating it to a candidate or PAC in your name is illegal. Any contributions must come from you.
“If you feel strongly about a political issue or candidate, it’s worth the time and effort to do the research to make sure your money is going to the cause you believe in.” Miller said. “If something doesn’t look right, it’s not worth writing that check.”