Effort to elect Stephen Waguespack Louisiana governor relies on secret donors

Over 43% of money supporting Waguespack comes from anonymous donors

By: - April 18, 2023 5:15 pm
A photo of Stephen Waguespack superimposed on the cover sheet of his campaign finance report

Louisiana Illuminator illustration/Waguespack campaign photo

Former business lobbyist Stephen Waguespack and his supporters have touted their ability to raise $3.1 million in just one  month to support his gubernatorial election efforts, but over 43% of that money has come from anonymous donors.

The Reboot Louisiana political action committee – which supports Waguespack’s candidacy – collected most of its $1.7 million from national nonprofit organizations based near Washington, D.C., that aren’t required to disclose their donors. This means a significant portion of the money raised so far — at least $1.1 million — to help Waguespack comes from untraceable sources, according to campaign finance reports and public tax documents for the groups.

Earlier this month, American Advancement Inc., based in Hyattsville, Maryland, donated $1 million to Reboot Louisiana. The Americans Jobs and Growth Fund in Northern Virginia gave $250,000, and Safe Streets Safe Communities, from Annapolis, Maryland, contributed $100,000, to the PAC backing Waguespack. 

American Advancement and Safe Streets Safe Communities are registered as 501(c)(4) nonprofits with the IRS, a controversial category of tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations that government transparency advocates refer to as “dark money” sources

The American Jobs and Growth Fund could also be this type of nonprofit. No public tax documents could be found for the group, but it shares a name and mailing address with the Americans Jobs and Growth PAC. It’s not uncommon for social welfare nonprofits to have corresponding PACs with similar names. 

Secretive nonprofits have become increasingly involved in elections over the past decade, accounting for election spending in excess of $1 billion since 2010, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks federal campaign spending.  

Unlike PACs and traditional campaigns, they don’t have to reveal who gives them money, even on private tax documents the IRS uses internally. Both Democrats and Republicans rely on them to get elected. 

Lionel Rainey, a political consultant who runs Reboot Louisiana and the Delta Good Hand PACs that support Waguespack, said there’s nothing illegal about accepting the organizations’ donations.

“[The PACs] are effectively engaging in political advocacy in strict compliance and adherence to the state’s campaign finance laws and are giving voice through its advocacy and full participation in the election process,” Rainey said.

The lack of transparency will make it much more difficult to figure out what special interest groups are backing Waguespack’s run for governor however. It will also be harder to determine who will have his ear if he wins the election, or whether businesses and wealthy donors might be getting favorable treatment if he’s in office. 

“Transparency helps people know who’s behind various campaigns, and that’s one way that they can make decisions about their voting,” said Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission appointed by President Barack Obama. “The failure to have that transparency is something that leads to distrust among voters — and rightly so.”

“The voters don’t know who is behind those super PACs, but the people with the money know,” she said.

Trying to catch Landry 

Waguespack, a Republican, is a former staff member of Gov. Bobby Jindal who, until he decided to jump in the governor’s race, oversaw the state’s premiere business lobby group. Having never run for office before, he’s also a surprise late-comer who only announced his candidacy last month. 

Several Republican donors in the Baton Rouge area, concerned with the prospect of Attorney General Jeff Landry becoming governor, are thought to have pushed Waguespack into the race. They grew nervous that none of the other Republican candidates — Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and House Rep. Richard Nelson — were gaining traction quickly enough to beat Landry.

Landry and Waguespack are conservative, but Landry has a reputation for being a firebrand and hot-headed. Waguespack is easy-going and has a more mild temperament, though he is not well-known outside of political circles. 

“Our campaign is gaining momentum by the day and our message is resonating with voters across the state. It is no surprise our movement has resulted in more than $3 million raised in just under a month,” Waguespack said in a written statement. “I am humbled by the broad support from folks who believe I am the strongest candidate to lead Louisiana.”

Transparency helps people know who’s behind various campaigns, and that’s one way that they can make decisions about their voting.

– Ann Ravel , former chair of the Federal Elections Commission

If Waguespack is going to build a public persona and have a chance at catching Landry in the race, he’ll have to raise money quickly. The latest campaign finance reports show Landry and his affiliated PACs have $8 million available to spend, more than twice as much as Waguespack or any other gubernatorial candidate.

Taking advantage of “dark money” nonprofits could fastrack Waguespack’s fundraising. While traditional campaigns face strict fundraising limits — individuals cap out at $5,000 per election cycle — PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from a single source, including “dark money” nonprofits. The only restriction they face is that PACs cannot directly coordinate with a candidate or their campaign staff. 

Waguespack’s supporters might also find the anonymous aspect of these donations appealing. Landry has a reputation for being vindictive, and it was reported weeks ago he had threatened to freeze out those who backed other candidates in the race should the attorney general become governor. 

Nonprofits linked to each other

The “dark money” groups giving money to the Waguespack PACs have no strong public connection to Louisiana. It’s also hard to tell what their specific missions are because they have no websites or active social media presence.

The groups are linked to each other, however. They have overlapping staff and gave to the same PACs in recent federal election cycles, according to a review of their tax documents and federal election commission data.

Thomas Norris, director of Safe Streets Safe Communities, was also previously the director of the American Jobs and Growth PAC, which shares a name and mailing address as the American Jobs and Growth Fund that donated to one of the Waguespack PACs this month. 

American Advancement also gave the Americans Jobs and Growth PAC, now run by Dustin McIntyre, $100,000 during the 2021-2022 election cycle. During that time, the PAC spent $123,000 to “oppose” the congressional run of former state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson in Southeast Louisiana,. 

Peterson, who was later sent to prison for stealing money from the Louisiana Democratic Party, ended up losing that election to Troy Carter, D-New Orleans.

The American Policy Coalition Inc., another major donor to the American Jobs and Growth PAC, also gave money to an organization called Make Louisiana Great Again in 2019, which opposed Gov. John Bel Edwards’ re-election and supported his Republican rival Eddie Rispone. Edwards won the race.

McIntyre also runs four other PACs from the same address in Northern Virginia that received approximately $3 million from American Advancement in 2021 and 2022. The candidates those other PACs supported were running in states that include Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma. All of them were Republicans. 

American Advancement Inc. and Safe Streets Safe Communities also have the same tax preparer, Total Business Solutions LLC in Grove City, Ohio.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.