A fund tied to Gov. Nathan Deal has quietly raised at least $459,000 over the past two years, mostly from big donors that do business with the state or have an interest in Capitol legislation.
Because Real PAC of Georgia is a political action committee, the companies, lobbying organizations and individuals have been able to write checks up to $50,000, three times what they could legally give Deal’s re-election campaign directly.
» POLITICAL INSIDER: Inside the campaign fundraising totals for Nathan Deal
Among the donors were companies vying to become the sole administrator of the state’s taxpayer-subsidized health benefits program for hundreds of thousands of state employees and retirees.
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The exact amount raised by Real PAC, started by Deal supporters, isn’t publicly known because they haven’t filed disclosure reports since early 2012. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution scrutinized contributions to the group that were reported by companies and political action committees that file regular disclosures showing how they spend their money.
The group’s treasurer, Rick Thompson, said none of the money is being given to other candidates. PACs don’t have to file state disclosures unless they donate more than $25,000 to political candidates in a year. The PAC also has not filed a federal disclosure, although Thompson said the group’s “activities” are “winding down” and financial information will be released.
“It (Real PAC) doesn’t support candidates, it’s never supported candidates,” Thompson said. “It was organized to get a political message out.”
The money will pay for an advertising campaign backing the Republican agenda. The ads are expected to begin running in September. A website for Real PAC shows a photo of Deal and his wife, Sandra, on stage at a campaign rally and says, “With your help we can create a job friendly environment, better our children’s education, and protect our conservative values. Join us today!” Deal campaign materials in 2010 used the phrase “Deal. Real.”
Deal is up for re-election next year.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said such secret political action committee spending should be “frightening” to Georgians.
“It’s a terrible way to run the American political system to allow large donors to contribute to campaigns and not have any limitations,” he said. “If you have big special interests helping put people into office who are protecting their interests and not the public’s interest, that’s a problem. It’s worse if the citizens can’t see who is giving the money.”
The political action committee was created in May 2011, listing Jim Walters, a major Deal donor from his hometown of Gainesville, as chairman, Deal’s business partner, Ken Cronan, as secretary, and Thompson, former executive secretary of the state ethics commission, as treasurer.
Real PAC filed a state end-of-the-year campaign report in early 2012 showing it raised $157,300 from nine donors during the final few weeks of 2011. Among those early donors were Majestic Realty Co., which gave $50,000, as did Georgia Crown Distributing Co., whose chairman, Donald Leebern, is a major Deal campaign contributor and who the governor reappointed to the University System Board of Regents. Other donors included AT&T ($25,000), the state’s hospital lobby ($10,000), and Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth. ($5,000).
Under state law, individuals and companies generally not donate more than $16,300 to a candidate’s statewide campaign: $6,300 for the primary and general election, and $3,700 for a runoff, if there is one.
Real PAC, whose existence was first reported last week by the website AtlantaUnfiltered.com, filed no reports since early 2012. However, political action committees, interest groups, businesses and lobbying firms who file state disclosures reported giving another $300,000 to Real PAC in 2012 and early 2013.
At least four contributed $50,000:
* United Health Group, which had a state contract in 2012 to help administer health insurance coverage for about 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their families. United was among the companies bidding this year to become the sole administrator of the program, although the company lost. The apparent winning bidder, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, donated $25,000 to Real PAC. Bert Kelly of Blue Cross Blue Shield said, “We do participate in the political process in a responsible way that we think serves the company’s interests and the interests of our members across the state.” A United spokesperson would not comment on the company’s Real PAC contribution.
* Georgia Health Care Association, the state’s nursing home lobby. The state’s Medicaid program funds most nursing home stays in Georgia, paying out more than $1 billion a year. The group hired Deal’s son-in-law shortly after the governor won election in 2010. United Health Services, one of the largest nursing care companies in Georgia, gave another $20,000. The company’s leaders are major Deal donors and the governor appointed the company’s chairman, Neil Pruitt Jr., to the Board of Regents three months after taking office.
* WellCare of Georgia, a company that was paid more than $1 billion by the Department of Community Health in 2012, according to state records. The contribution was dated the same day that a Medicaid official said the state planned to extend WellCare’s contract through 2016, although the decision had been made well before that. Bryan Baier, vice president of WellCare’s government affairs group, said, “Health care is a critical issue facing our country, and WellCare believes it’s important to be engaged in the policy debate and in the politics that shape policy.”
* Anheuser-Busch, which has a brewery in Cartersville and backed legislation allowing Georgians to buy alcoholic beverages in stores on Sunday, an issue stalled until Deal took office.
* A repeat donor was AT&T, which donated another $25,000 earlier this year, making its two-year Real PAC total $50,000. AT&T was one of the companies pushing legislation this year to limit the time local governments have to decide whether to allow new cell-phone towers. Local government officials said the legislation, which didn’t pass during the 2013 session, would also have limited their ability to regulate cell towers already in place.
At least nine contributors gave more money than those interests could legally give to a candidate’s campaign. However, such large contributions to political action committees are legal in Georgia.
One person backing the fund said donors were looking for a way to provide extra support to Deal, giving more than they could give directly to his campaign.
An AJC analysis found that Real PAC donors have given Deal’s campaigns about $250,000 since the beginning of 2010, with more than half coming from the Pruitt and Leebern families and their companies.
Almost all of the donors to Real PAC were lobbyists, companies or groups with lobbyists, or groups with some other connection to state government.
One exception was Majestic Realty, a California-based company that has developed millions of square feet of warehouse and distribution space across metro Atlanta. Officials said the company has no leases with the state.
“Majestic Realty is in favor of good government and is a big supporter of the governor,” said Stan Conway, vice president and director of development for Majestic Realty in Atlanta.
Anheuser-Bush’s regional director of government affairs, Jose Gonzalez, said his company “has a long tradition of fostering active, responsible corporate citizenship. Like many other corporations, we participate in the political process in many ways. This includes regularly making financial contributions to political parties and candidates at the local and state level, where legal, who we believe best represent the interests of our shareholders, employees and consumers.”