Two-and-a-half years after his challenge to Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) ended in failure, the House campaign of Republican Chris Perkins is still reverberating through the consulting industry.
It was a Super PAC created by Perkins campaign manager Tyler Harber that resulted in the first case of a consultant being charged with illegal coordination between such an entity and a campaign.
Some observers say that coordination, which wasn’t exposed until after the 2012 cycle, further unmasks a woefully inadequate campaign finance regulatory system. For others, it suggests a cultural deficiency in the consulting industry—a reluctance on the part of some professionals to sound alarm bells about bad actors.
In an email exchange with C&E, an admittedly “naive” Perkins denied having any knowledge of what Harber was doing with the National Republican Victory Fund (NRVF)—the Super PAC that made expenditures to boost his candidacy. Observers of the campaign agree, noting that as a first-time candidate Perkins was more likely guilty of relying too much on a single advisor. Regardless, Perkins would have been under no legal obligation to report whatever he knew at the time, according to a campaign finance attorney.
Perkins, a retired Army colonel, acknowledged that he could be a target of the federal probe that remains ongoing, despite Harber’s recent plea agreement with the Department of Justice. Harber pleaded guilty in February to one count of coordinated federal election contributions and one count of making false statements to the FBI. His sentencing is scheduled for June 5.
“I might be a person of interest. After all, my name was attached to the campaign,” Perkins wrote in an email to C&E. “I am not completely sure that I fully understand what Tyler pled guilty to beyond what I read in the two articles in the Washington Post.”
The Road to a Consultant’s Ruin
Long before making national headlines with his guilty plea, Harber was a well-known figure in the consultant community. After launching his career in Tennessee, where he was labeled a “dirty tricks specialist,” Harber had stints at Public Opinion Strategies (POS), Wilson Research Strategies and The Prosper Group. He was named a Rising Star in 2010, an award that C&E has since revoked.
Through interviews with numerous consultants who have worked alongside Harber over the past three election cycles, a profile emerged of a brash operative who frequently took unnecessary risks and broke unwritten rules governing how consultants operate. For instance, after he left POS for Wilson in 2007, Harber circulated an email that Neil Newhouse said "considerably overstates his experience."
"Imagine our surprise when Tyler claims credit for literally every single POS win in the 2006 election cycle, including Senate races, Governor’s races, Congressional races and down-ticket races in which Tyler had absolutely no involvement," Newhouse, the co-founder of POS, wrote in an email at the time.
In at least two instances, Harber used fake names. He created the group The Hillary Project, known for its “slap Hillary” video game, and served as its spokesman under the alias Fred Wilcox, according to a consultant who worked with Harber. He also used the alias Paul Connors in association with that group and later the Super PAC he created to back Perkins, according to multiple sources. In an August 2013 ThinkProgress article about The Hillary Project, both of Harber’s aliases are quoted.
The Hillary Project was registered in July 2013 with the FEC under a filing that listed treasurer Christopher Marston as its only officer. After the controversy over the video game, Marston stepped aside as treasurer. That wasn’t the first time that Marston had found his professional reputation under fire while working with Harber.
Marston was hired by Perkins in 2012 to be his campaign’s treasurer. In early 2013, the compliance consultant was hired by NRVF attorney Jason Torchinsky to serve as the PAC’s treasurer and “clean up the mess,” said Marston, who was questioned by the FBI in September 2013 as part of its investigation of Harber.
During the 2012 cycle, when the so-called mess of false Super PAC billings was made, he saw Harber in the Perkins campaign office “from time to time,” but “didn't have any knowledge at the time that Tyler was engaged in any activity with the Super PAC at all,” Marston said in an email. In fact, he recalled not knowing there was any IE spending in the race.
The Perkins campaign itself sent a fundraising email Oct. 3, 2012 boasting of being “elevated to a targeted race” after the NRVF started advertising in Virginia’s 11th district. The fundraising email was signed by Harber, Perkins Campaign Strategist.
“While clearly [the IE expenditures] were a matter of public record, I was the bookkeeper for numerous campaigns across the country and wasn't monitoring independent expenditure reports in any of the races,” Marston noted.
Campaign staff who worked in the Perkins office in Fairfax, Va., said there were signs that Harber was acting improperly. One staffer noted down the stretch that there was tension between Perkins, his wife Petra and Harber over campaign spending. Perkins only raised some $550,000 — a shoestring budget compared with the more than $2.2 million Connolly took in.
When office supplies were needed, Harber handed a staffer his consulting firm’s credit card to use at Staples instead of the campaign’s credit card. “Rather than have to deal with [Perkins], Tyler would just say, ‘put it on my credit card,’” said the staffer, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “It was for things you would typically have the campaign buy.”
A Local GOP Official off the ‘Tomato Truck’
On top of the candidate and his spouse’s spending worries, Harber was increasingly concerned by inquiries from Terry Wear, who runs the 11th district GOP. Wear, a former special assistant U.S. attorney, met with Harber and Perkins shortly after the colonel won the district primary in June 2012. He was immediately put off by Harber’s behavior.
“Most of what he said was basically nonsense,” said Wear. “He’s got a great line of BS.”
Wear, who grew up in Iowa, spent years prosecuting white collar fraud. “In one case, after it was over with, the guy said, ‘Terry, we’re in the business of selling sizzle and grease. Not steak.’ That’s basically what [Harber] was trying to do with this thing.”
But at the beginning of their relationship, Harber treated him like just another meddling local party official. “He must’ve thought I just fell off a tomato truck coming up from Raleigh,” Wear said.
Wear’s suspicions about Harber grew after he got an email from him on Sept. 17, 2012 asking the local GOP to contribute money for a poll that was being requested by the “national guys.”
“The NRCC and Romney campaign is [sic] encouraging us to get the 11th District committee to contribute $5,000 for a survey with a firm that is pre-approved by the national folks and reliable,” Harber wrote to Wear. “Can I tell the national guys that you are on-board with raising and contributing the $5,000 earmarked for research for Perkins and Romney?”
Instead of contributing, Wear called the Romney campaign and learned it had made no such request. Wear said he felt more uneasy about what was going on in the race after he started getting emails from the NRVF that mentioned Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, then the GOP’s vice presidential nominee.
One Super PAC email requested that recipients help raise “another $841,000” to counteract ads by the Obama campaign and “pro-Obama superPACs.”
Perkins touted the NRVF’s support as a sign his race was drawing national attention. In fact, national party strategists didn’t know who he was and vice versa.
“Many candidates outside of targeted congressional districts don’t know who the NRCC is and how it can help,” said Liesl Hickey, a former executive director of the NRCC. “A lot of these guys don’t think to reach out.”
That leaves another potential avenue to vet vendors unexplored. “These candidates end up being sitting ducks for unethical vendors,” said Hickey, who still advises the committee. Unscrupulous consultants “don’t really go after top-tier candidates,” she said. “[They] prey on candidates who don’t know better, who may not be getting national party attention.”
In addition to national scrutiny, a little common sense is helpful, too. Hickey noted that not a single top-tier GOP House candidate in 2012 had a Super PAC bolstering them. Why, then, would a long-shot, first-time candidate running in a non-targeted district warrant half-a-million dollars in outside spending? That’s the kind of question a candidate should be in a position to ask.
Perkins didn’t get in touch with the NRCC, but Wear did. In October 2012, after visiting the NRVF’s office on Capitol Hill and finding no sign of an organization or Paul Connors, he walked over to the NRCC and met with Mike Bober, who was then the committee’s coalitions director.
“I said, ‘I think this is a scam. I’m concerned they’re trying to tie Paul Ryan to it in some fashion and this could come back to bite Ryan and the campaign,’” recalled Wear.
Bober agreed it looked suspicious. He sent an email to the address the NRVF had listed on its FEC report, and received a return phone call, Wear said. Bober told him the person he talked to said that he was new to the job and didn’t know much about the Super PAC’s activities. That was where Bober’s investigation ended.
“In the months before a national election, there wasn’t a lot of time for me to dig into what could be a wild goose chase,” Bober said. “At that point, this was something that was really not a priority for me.”
Still, Bober said he advised Wear to report his suspicions to the proper authorities.
Harber knew he was losing control of the situation after Wear met with the NRCC and Bober contacted the Super PAC. Under his alias Paul Connors, he sent Wear an email threatening him with legal action.
“After being contacted by the committee, we have been repeatedly notified that you are spreading a rumor that we are ‘scam’ [sic] of some type. That could not be further from the truth,” Harber wrote as Paul Connors in the email. “Please be aware that we will engage an immediate legal challenge to you, in a personal capacity, if you continue along this path.”
Wear waited until after the election and then called the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. In December 2012 he was visited by an FBI agent. “I had put all of the emails and everything else that I had onto a thumb drive and handed the whole kit and caboodle to him,” he said. “They went forward from there.”
The FBI interviewed Perkins’ campaign staff, some of Harber’s fellow consultants and GOP officials. When contacted by C&E, many denied that they were interviewed or even that they knew who Harber was. It seemed the industry wanted to forget he was a part of it.
Meanwhile, it’s also easy to forget small dollar donors were being fleeced, too. Imagine the chagrin of the GOP supporter who gave $45 to help support a group involved in a losing effort in suburban D.C. run by a consultant who wound up using $138,000 of the money raised for family expenses. Even his mother profited, taking $20,000 to use as a down payment on a property.
Wear called Harber an “incompetent crook,” but noted he could have fleeced other efforts he was involved with. “If I were associated with any campaign that he’s been involved with over the last three-four years, I’d want to go back and take a hard look at the books.”
Harber’s actions fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission. But instead of serving as one of the campaign industry’s referees, it’s basically out of the game.
“The FEC process for investigating complaints is a really cumbersome one. It requires four votes just to look at actually investigating and talking to witnesses and the like,” said Ann Ravel, the commission’s chairwoman. “It’s extremely difficult to get the four votes that are necessary to enforce or even investigate. That in and of itself is creating a perception in the regulated community that the FEC is not an agency that they will ever have to reckon with.”
Even cases the Justice Department is probing should be investigated by the FEC, according to Ravel. “I always believe the FEC should be enforcing on matters involving campaign finance laws in addition to the Department of Justice,” she said. “In order for the FEC to have credibility as an agency we have to enforce and investigate all matters that come within our jurisdiction.”
This deadlock comes as PACs are proliferating and the registration requirements remain minimal. PACs are now paper tigers that operate with little oversight, said Democratic campaign finance attorney Neil Reiff.
“They used to be organizations with staff and offices, but these days the majority of them are just paper,” he said.
Today, it just takes a treasurer's signature, a taxpayer ID number and one FEC filing to create a Super PAC. In the case of the NRVF, in 2012 it blew through $560,612 — with more than $110,000 of the money coming from contributions under $200. A single donor, Cary Fields, a 71-year-old registered Independent from New York, provided $300,000 of that in two installments in October 2012.
In February, the Justice Department said it planned to investigate cases of illegal coordination more aggressively. The question is, how aggressively? It took more than two years for the Justice Department to get Harber to admit he was running the Perkins campaign and the NRVF at the same time while siphoning off money from the latter. Without Wear’s assistance, it’s questionable whether a case would have been brought at all.
Wear’s prosecutorial experience taught him to be cautious of consultants like Harber. But to many in the industry Harber was simply a colleague who sometimes pushed the limits. Even as Harber’s actions became the topic of cocktail party chatter, he continued to get work in the 2014 cycle.
“In my conversations there were people who were a little concerned,” said Chris Godby, who worked with Harber at Harden Global. “From my perspective, I wasn’t really aware of how bad it was until it was too late to understand what he had done in the past. That was one of the reasons why I was trying to get away and move on to something else.”
Godby was part of a group of consultants who in late 2014 broke with Harber to form surgeRED, where he now serves as director of client strategy. “In the consulting world, I think there were a few people that had knowledge about it but for the most part this wasn’t something an awful lot of people understood.”
For Godby, the experience reinforces the duty consultants have to police their own.
“You see something happen, it’s your responsibility to speak up —especially if you have a relationship with the person,” he said. “You’re going to see more of that self-policing going on going forward.”
The reality is that there’s no single standard for consultants to be held to, and calling someone out can jeopardize business down the road or lead to accusations of hypocrisy from others in the industry. With so many strong disincentives, the list of potential whistle blowers is limited.
A treasurer could detect financial irregularities, such as payments to front companies like the ones Harber transacted with the NRVF. But compliance consultants note it would be difficult for a treasurer to detect that kind of fraud in this case unless they were handling both sets of accounts at the same time, which Marston said he wasn’t.
What’s a Candidate to Do?
Marston advises candidates to retain a lawyer of their own choosing up front, and to involve themselves in making sure all consultants and staffers “respect the coordination prohibition that prohibits communication between campaigns and super PACs.
“The Perkins campaign never engaged counsel, and the Super PAC didn't engage counsel until early 2013,” said Marston.
Neil Reiff maintains that just having a lawyer isn't enough to prevent a candidate from being a victim of fraud. In the court documents unveiled with Harber’s plea agreement, the Department of Justice stated that Harber concealed his embezzlement of the NRVF’s funds from September 2012 to about May 2014 — long after the Super PAC hired an attorney and switched treasurers.
"You can have the best lawyer in town, and unless you can trust the integrity of the people you hire, there’s very little you can do to stop them," Reiff said. “Vet your vendors.”
Another way to protect against fraud is with a solid compliance company. “When we’re bringing a client on, we’ll talk to them about if they’re going to set up a Super PAC, how there needs to be a firewall, because eventually you’re going to break up and go different directions,” said Bradley Crate, founder of Red Curve Solutions. “But I think people have difficulty giving up control.”
The responsibility for malfeasance doesn’t rest solely with the consultant, according to Reiff. Candidates also bear some responsible for their hires.
“You can’t be a hands-off candidate,” he said. “You can’t have an organization where you invest everything in one person.”
As for what Perkins would do if he were to run again, the former candidate said he’d “go the same route: hire a professional.”
“I’m not sure there is an actual lesson to be learned in all of this other than to remind ourselves that you never really know someone,” said Perkins. “You can only trust.”
This piece has been updated.
Sean J. Miller is the editor of Campaigns & Elections. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org