Federal prosecutors have gone where the Federal Election Commission can't find its way, charging two Arizona brothers with using bogus political action committees to scam gullible small-dollar donors.
A criminal complaint alleges that William and Robert Tierney raised more than $23 million between 2014 and 2017. It says William Tierney's share was more than $3 million; Robert Tierney's was more than $600,000; the candidates they claimed to be supporting got about $109,000.
The brothers allegedly paid an unnamed co-conspirator more than $250,000, with the rest going for fundraising expenses and other overhead.
FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney Jr. called the Tierneys' network of PACs "nothing more than a front for an extensive personal fundraising campaign." He said it was "lacking in ethical oversight and laden with greed."
The Tierneys were charged by federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York and were arraigned Thursday at federal district court in Phoenix. Lawyers for the brothers didn't respond to NPR's requests for comment.
The Tierneys' PACs solicited loyal conservatives who made contributions of $200 or less. Small donors' names aren't made public in campaign finance reports.
The PACs cited in the case against the Tierneys were apparently named by plucking from the salad bowl of conservative buzzwords: Grassroots Awareness PAC, Americans for Law Enforcement PAC, National Campaign PAC, Protect Our Future PAC, Voter Education PAC and Action Coalition PAC.
The complaint says the Tierneys managed three others: Life and Liberty PAC, Republican Majority Campaign PAC and RightMarch.com PAC.
The PACs claimed to be raising money for causes such as autism awareness, a law enforcement coalition, an anti-abortion-rights committee, a Republican victory committee and a campaign to stop illegal immigration.
Scam PACs have long been identified as a problem in the loosely regulated world of independent political money. Two journalists, Casey Tolan and Paul Jossey, separately investigated the network in 2016 and 2017 and published articles.
The Federal Election Commission has found itself unable to shut down scam PACs. Five years ago it took up complaints against five alleged scam PACs and wound up finding no "reason to believe" wrongdoing had occurred.
In 2015, Virginia conservative politician Ken Cuccinelli sued a PAC for allegedly using his name to raise money. The case ended with a negotiated settlement.