The organization is called Protect America’s Consumers. It accepts donations and says it will use the money to stop future scandals at a federal consumer protection agency.
Protect America’s Consumers sounds official. But the organization is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization with the IRS and collects and spends what’s known as dark money — money designed to influence politics and elections whose sources don’t need to be disclosed.
Protect America’s Consumers is engaged in an advertising campaign attacking Richard Cordray, director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He’s a former Ohio attorney general and, according to The Columbus Dispatch, a potential Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio.
Protect America’s Consumers and similar groups have used the legal services of the Warrenton law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky. The firm is headed by Jill Holtzman Vogel, a state senator from Fauquier County and the Republican Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in November.
It employs power lawyers such as Tom Josefiak, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, and they are adept with election laws across the country.
Vogel, the managing partner, is a former chief counsel for the Republican National Committee and a former deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Energy under President George W. Bush.
She founded her firm in 2001 and it has worked for clients such as the super PAC American Crossroads, which Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee for governor, helped GOP strategist Karl Rove conceive of in 2010.
Vogel often describes herself on the campaign stump as “an ethics attorney.”
What her law firm specializes in, however, includes helping dark money nonprofits establish themselves and spend money in politics from anonymous donors.
“The bottom line is, somebody hires my firm to make absolutely sure that they do not get in trouble,” Vogel said in an interview this spring. When asked about groups that have criticized her firm, she said, “There’s always the other side who doesn’t like your group.”
Included in that other side are organizations like Common Cause, which wants to reduce the influence of money in politics. Why? A well-informed electorate, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation.
Elected officials will behave in manners consistent with those who have supported them financially, he said, and even the U.S. Supreme Court with a conservative majority has acknowledged the public interest in voters knowing who is spending money to try to influence their opinion.
Vogel’s firm “has been on the forefront of funneling dark money into our elections in states around the nation,” Ryan said. “They’ve also been forceful advocates for deregulation of disclosure laws.”
Vogel’s campaign offered an additional comment from the candidate via email for this story.
“My law firm is one of the foremost ethics, tax, IRS compliance and election law firms in the country doing work in many of the 50 states,” Vogel said in the statement. “I am bound by attorney-client privilege and cannot discuss who I or my partners do or do not represent.”
The Facebook page for Protect America’s Consumers says it’s “America’s independent, non-partisan consumer watchdog. We look out for you when Washington doesn’t.”
The website the group created to attack Cordray is www.cordray2018.com, but it’s loaded with attacks on him and snippets from news articles.
The organization incorporated in November 2015 and its registered agent is North Rock Reports LLC, which shares an address with Vogel’s law firm in Warrenton, according to filings with the Virginia State Corporation Commission. And the registered agent for North Rock Reports is attorney Jason Torchinsky from Vogel’s firm.
Protect America’s Consumers can accept unlimited donations and has a policy of not providing the names of its donors to the public.
“Any person or entity that contributes more than $5,000 to a Section 501(c)(4) organization must be disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service on Form 990,” the organization’s website says. “However, the IRS does not make these donor disclosures available to the general public.”
SCC records list GOP operative Dan Centinello as president of Protect America’s Consumers and Steve Gates as director. Centinello’s biography on the website of the Lincoln Strategy Group consulting firm says he’s the executive vice president there.
According to his office, he’s currently based in Barcelona, Spain. Centinello did not respond to a message left Thursday, and Gates did not respond to an email sent Wednesday.
In 2011, a lawyer with Vogel’s firm helped a 501(c)(4) called Americans for Responsible Leadership incorporate in Arizona, and the firm continued representing it.
The California Attorney General’s Office and the California Fair Political Practices Commission filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit before the November 2012 election, asking for records after it gave an $11 million donation to a California campaign committee.
The investigation began after a complaint made by California Common Cause.
An investigation then showed that Americans for Responsible Leadership was an intermediary and not the true source of the donation, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
The true source of the $11 million donation and a $4.08 million donation, both made through intermediaries, was another tax-exempt organization called the Center to Protect Patient Rights, which is now called American Encore.
“Under California law, the failure to disclose this initially was campaign money laundering,” according to a 2012 news release from the state commission. “At $11 million, this is the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history.”
In 2013, the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership agreed in a civil settlement to pay $1 million to the California general fund for failing to disclose the contributions, according to the state commission.
Vogel faces Democrat Justin Fairfax in the Nov. 7 election. Virginia’s part-time lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate when it’s in session and breaks tie votes on most issues, and the office is a potential steppingstone into the governor’s mansion.
Vogel herself came under withering attack by dark money advertising earlier this year in her GOP primary campaign against state Sen. Bryce E. Reeves, R-Spotsylvania. An anonymous advertising campaign directed people to a website called www.hillary ofthecommonwealth.com.
The website features an unflattering photo of Vogel and the phrase “Just like Her,” using the logo Hillary Clinton used in her failed Democratic presidential campaign last year.
Whoever funded the ads remains unclear.