A deep-pocketed group hoping to field a third candidate in November has quietly shifted its fundraising focus earlier this month to serve a curious goal, a spokeswoman has acknowledged to BuzzFeed: All money raised by Americans Elect will, for the forseeable future, be given to the millionaires who created it.
The group made the shift public in a cryptic statement on its website on March 2:
The Board of Directors voted unanimously on 20 February 2012 to ensure that no supporter would cover more than 20% of the Americans Elect budget. In the event that any one supporter exceeds that percentage, there are provisions created to expedite repayments to that supporter.
Americans Elect, whose leaders have said they expect to spend $40 million this year getting on the ballot in 50 states and building a sophisticated platform for a secure online primary, casts the move as one in service of its populist goal of having no donor give more than $10,000. But its immediate effect may make it extremely difficult for the group, which is heavily bankrolled by its chairman, financier and philanthropist Peter Ackerman, to raise any more money at all, and particularly the kind of small, grassroots donations it seeks on its website.
"The first goal" of the new measure, spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel told BuzzFeed, is to begin repayment of any supporter who has provided more than 20% of the group's budget. The group does not disclose details of its funding, but she confirmed that repayment would begin immediately. "The ultimate goal for no one to have given more than 10,000," she said.
Ackerman had given $5.5 million to the group as of last November, his son Elliott — who is its chief operating officer — said on "Hardball" at the time. The group's fundraising and spending aren't public, but the new 20% threshold and the acknowledgement that repayment has begun suggests that he, or another donor, has given more than that.
The decision to begin repaying its wealthy backers makes its current fundraising pitch difficult to explain. The only cause new contributions serve appears to be refunding large donors, a move which calls into question the promises the organization makes in a video on its fundraising page.
"Donations made to Americans Elect go only to three areas: developing the website, gathering signatures to get on the ballot in every state, and helping us bring in more delegates," says Joshua Levine, a former E*TRADE executive who is Americans Elect's Chief Technology Officer, in the video.
Americans Elect's executive director, Khalil Byrd, told BuzzFeed that the group's "core budget" for 2012 is $40 million.
"Our aspiration as an organization is to have the American people take this over...also in terms of its financing," he said.
Byrd also advised a reporter not to "get weedy" about the new rule, and said repeatedly, in response to questions about the new threshold, that the organization is "fully financed" and "transparent."
"We don't talk about how we’re financing things," he said. "We just want to make sure that people understand our aspiration."
The new 20% threshold drew a round of objections from the group's internal and external critics, who cast it as a move to raise the share of contributions from shadowy oligarchs from $10,000 to 20%.
But the group's real issue may be the opposite: It's now fundraising entirely to repay the rich, a pitch which, if it's made clear, will likely mean that it's not doing any fundraising at all.