OPINION: Cash cache in PAC secures Bennie Thompson’s influence

What’s political about domestic security?
Most of us would say nothing. We want border patrols and airport security and cargo inspections – every task performed in the name of keeping at bay those who would harm us – done professionally and competently. There are no Democratic, Republican, left, right or center aspects. The job is done right or it’s not.
But wait. The U.S. Congress has a voice in this. And there’s money involved. And where there’s money, there’s politics.
The House elevated the Committee on Homeland Security to permanent status on the last day of January 2005. The chairman is Rep. Bennie C. Thompson, D-Miss.
What would be a top priority for a new committee?
For Thompson it was forming a political action committee to accept cash and to try to use the cash to elect Democrats. The Federal Election Commission got notice that “Secure PAC” was born in May 2005, with Rep. Thompson as its affiliate and his wife, London, as treasurer. Secure PAC’s headquarters is a post office box in Bolton.
Thompson, who represents Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District, is not even close to plowing any new ground with Secure PAC. There are almost 200 such funds known to be operated or strongly influenced by a member or group of congressmen. Republicans engage in exactly the same practices.
Early in 2010, Thompson will file for re-election. He will raise money for his campaign. In fact, his latest report says he has $1.6 million on hand. That’s more money, by the way, than most of the towns in his mostly Mississippi Delta district spend in a year.
Secure PAC is not Thompson’s campaign fund. It’s a separate account for which Thompson can accept donations and, in turn, give away the money any way he pleases.
Leadership PAC money helps party leaders keep lower-ranking members in line. It can also be used to purchase the souls of incoming House and Senate members. Thompson and the others are buying favor with money that’s not even theirs. It’s as close to being Santa Claus as a mortal can get.
Most folks’ eyes glaze over or they change the channel when the topic is campaign finance. Everybody knows money talks, something else walks. People are deluged with health care reform, cap-and-trade, stimulus funds, two wars …. It’s all too much. But it is a core issue.
During the last two-year election cycle, Secure PAC raised about $250,000 and gave it to Democratic candidates. Rep. William Jennings “Freezer” Jefferson, D-La., now convicted of 11 bribery-related charges, got $14,000, making him the largest single donee. Still, Secure PAC is a piker in comparison to PACs that accept and pass out millions.
So far this year – and voting is 14 months away – Secure PAC has raised $50,063 and spent $66,814, leaving a cash balance of $114,250. The spending included $15,000 for a study (most likely a mailing list of potential donors) paid to a Washington consulting firm, $3,500 for a fundraising party for the PAC in Washington and about $3,000 to Office Depot on Robinson Road in Jackson for furniture and supplies. The balance of this year’s spending to date consisted of $5,000 donations to Democratic House candidates from Connecticut, Ohio, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, California and Nevada and a $10,000 donation to a Senate candidate from Florida. PACs can also hire family and friends for services.
How does any of this spending help Secure PAC help make America more secure? Well, it doesn’t. All it does is add to the clout of senior members of Congress, not based on their ideas, but their ability to write checks and move up the power chain.
Donors to the Secure PAC, by the way, generally mirror donors to Thompson’s own campaign fund. This gives credence to the accusation that PACs are a way around statutory limits because a donor can, in essence, double up by giving a check for the maximum to the campaign and another check for the maximum to the candidate’s PAC. Thompson’s big donors are unions, trial lawyer groups and casino companies. Of the $500,000 he’s raised this year, less than $50,000 came from individuals and businesses in Mississippi.
Need to be clear about this, too: There’s nothing hidden about Secure PAC and its practices. Even when he was a member of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, Thompson was an advocate of open meetings and full disclosure. Anyone who wants to “follow the money” that members of Congress or their PACs raise and spend or give away can look up detailed reports on the Internet. The Federal Elections Commission and watchdog groups such as Open Secrets provide searchable sites.
Too few citizens, however, see the money-go-round as a problem. And for members of Congress, well, that’s just fine.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail cmitchell@vicksburgpost.com.

Charlie Mitchell