OpenSecrets.org has analyzed the 2014 data and found 92 instances in which a candidate’s campaign and a single-candidate super PAC hired a common vendor. Some of the expenditures were small; others involved payments to the same airline or another unexceptional vendor. At the other end of the spectrum was spending in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by both campaign and super PAC on political consultants, pollsters, ad-buyers or lawyers.
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So how is it possible that a campaign and a super PAC — which legally can’t coordinate their spending — can both hire the same people to work for them and not run afoul of the coordination rules? Clearly, the fact vendors are shared indicates common interests and perhaps common strategies, even if there’s no official consultation between the campaign and super PAC. And in some cases the line may be crossed.
But there are scenarios where it is permissible for the two sides to share vendors, and those likely account for a number of the instances found in the OpenSecrets.org analysis.
For starters, the rules prohibit sharing a vendor only for certain types of work — preparing ads, selecting audiences for the ads, media-buying, polling, voter identification and fundraising.
In addition, timing matters. If there’s a four-month gap between a vendor’s work for a campaign and for its supporting super PAC — a cooling-off period of sorts — there’s not a problem, according to the FEC. There are plenty of examples of vendors working for both, but not at the same time. For instance, the campaign of then-Sen.Mark Begich (D-Alaska) spent $403,000 on polling research from Lake Research; and Put Alaska First super PAC, which did nothing but support Begich, hired the firm as well, paying it $18,350. But, according Lake Research, the firm did work for the super PAC after the election was over, a fact that FEC records seem to bear out.
Still, many of the common vendors identified in the OpenSecrets.org analysis appear to have done work — a great deal of it — for both sides at the same time. In those cases, the standard way for vendors to try to avoid trouble with regulators is by establishing what’s known as a firewall — an internal barrier prohibiting discussions between employees working for one client and those working for the other.