Image: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Romney waves as he leaves a campaign stop in Los Angeles
Lucy Nicholson  /  Reuters
Mitt Romney waves as he leaves a campaign appearance in Los Angeles on July 20.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/5/2011 9:02:44 AM ET 2011-08-05T13:02:44

Two campaign reform groups are asking the Justice Department to investigate a mysterious $1 million contribution to a political committee backing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney from an obscure company that shut down shortly after making the donation.

The contribution to Restore Our Future, a so-called “super PAC” formed by three former Romney political aides, drew scrutiny following an NBC News report on Thursday . The firm that gave the money, called W Spann LLC, was formed in March – with no listed officers or directors — made the contribution in April, then dissolved itself in July, according to corporate records.  

Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, an advocacy group for campaign reform,  said the contribution appeared to be “blatantly” designed to circumvent campaign disclosure laws. He said Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, another advocacy group that promotes greater transparency in election laws, will formally request an investigation into the donation on Friday. 

“The apparent effort to keep secret the actual donor or donors of the $1 million may well be a violation of the campaign finance laws and this matter should be investigated by the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department,” he said in a statement.

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in 'The Isikoff Files'

The  Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission both declined comment Thursday.

Charlies Spies, the treasurer of Restore Our Future, said the group would have no further comment beyond its previous statement to NBC News that the pro-Romney committee “has fully complied with all FEC regulations, including publicly disclosing donors on our July 31 report.”

It is illegal under federal law for political donors to make contributions in the name of another person – so called “straw donors” --  and such violations have been vigorously prosecuted by the Justice Department in the past, according to campaign finance experts.

But the federal campaign laws have been made increasingly murky as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political advocacy. That, in turn, enabled  “super PACs” like Restore Our Future – and similar groups on the Democratic side -- to collect millions of dollars from companies and wealthy donors.

Wertheimer said the W Spann contribution “appears to be a straw donor transaction” because the real donor or donors were using a hastily created company to make the political contribution while hiding their identities. The argument could hinge, some campaign finance experts said, on whether W Spann LLC had any other business purpose – or was created solely for the purpose of donating the money to Restore Our Future.

Corporate records show that the person who registered the company in Delaware was Cameron Casey, an associate with the venerable Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray, who specializes in estate tax planning for “high net worth individuals.”

A Democratic political advocacy group, American Bridge, emailed a memo to reporters Thursday pointing out multiple connections between Romney and the law firm, including the fact that Ropes & Gray represented him in a challenge to his residency status when he first ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and that one of the firm’s partners, R. Bradford Malt, was trustee of Romney’s blind trust when he ran for president in 2008.

The law firm has also represented Bain Capital, the investment firm once headed by Romney. Bain Capital is one of a number of blue chip firms located at 590 Madison Ave. in New York, the midtown Manhattan office building that W Spann LLC listed as its address in the campaign report filed last week by Restore Our Future.

A spokesman for Bain denied that anybody at the firm was involved in W Spann LLC. A spokesman for Ropes & Gray did not respond to request for comment from NBC News on Thursday.

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Photos: Mitt Romney

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  1. Mitt Romney at the age of 1, in 1948, the son of the eventual three-term Republican governor of Michigan and unsuccessful presidential candidate, George Romney, and his wife, Lenore, an unsuccessful candidate for senator from Michigan. ( Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Mitt with his father, George Romney, taken about 1957. ( Back to slideshow navigation
  3. American Motors President George Romney with his wife, children, and grandchildren. Mitt Romney's father was elected governor of Michigan in 1962. Mitt was an intern in the governor's office and traveled with his father to the 1964 Republican National Convention. (Francis Miller / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mitt Romney, at left, with fellow Mormon missionaries in front of the police station in Limoges, central France, in autumn 1968. The fresh-faced Latter-Day Saints who came to France in the late 1960s to preach the message of Jesus Christ -- of which Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is the most well-known -- discovered a secular and skeptical populace, and few willing converts. On bad days, the young Americans were greeted with guns, or barking dogs chased at their heels. Romney has said his mission, which took him through LeHavre, Paris and Bordeaux, was a testing time, with rejection an everyday occurrence. But it was precisely this two and half years that helped cement Romney's tenacity and his faith, say current and former missionaries. (Mike Bush via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mitt and Ann Lois Davies on their wedding day, March 21, 1969. They first met in elementary school, but started dating in the spring of 1965. Later Ann suffered from multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. ( Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mitt and Ann Romney with their five sons in 1981: Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben and Craig. ( Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Mitt Romney, CEO and president of Salt Lake Organizing Committee, joins U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on Jan. 22, 2002 at a press conference ahead of the city's Olympic Games. Before Romney came on, the event was running $379 million behind budget and allegations of bribery shook the organization's top brass. Romney was also tasked with keeping the games safe in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. (George Frey / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Former Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney, with his wife Ann, speaks at a press conference on March 19, 2002 at his home in Belmont, Mass. Romney announced that he was entering the governor's race. The announcement came just hours after acting Gov. Jane Swift announced she will bow out of the contest. (Darren McCollester / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. President George W. Bush stands beside Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney at the Seaport Hotel on Oct. 4 2002 in Boston, Massachusetts. Bush was campaigning in the Bay State as Republicans attempted to extend a 12-year grip on the governorship of this otherwise Democratic-controlled commonwealth. Romney went on to serve as governor from 2003-2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Two men on opposite sides of the issue argue over gay marriage outside the Massachusetts State House while the legislature was in its second day of debate over a possible constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on Feb. 12, 2004 in Boston. The proposed amendment, supported by Gov. Mitt Romney, was drafted in response to a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling declaring that the right to same-sex marriage was protected by the state's constitution. (Michael Springer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Photographs of the victims line the stage as Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, his wife Suzanne, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann bow their heads in prayer during a memorial service on the eve of the one-year anniversary of The Station nightclub fire Feb. 19, 2004 in Cranston, R.I. The Station, located in nearby West Warwick, was destroyed and 100 people died after a fire broke out when the rock band Great White ignited pyrotechnics on Feb. 20, 2003. (Michael Springer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mitt Romney looks on while Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation John Cogliano speaks during a press conference at the Statehouse in Boston. Governor Romney announced on July 13, 2006 that he was filing emergency legislation to give the Executive Branch the authority to oversee the inspection of the failed ceiling system in the I-90 Connector tunnel. A large section of the "Big Dig" tunnel was found to be faulty after a 12-ton portion collapsed, killing a woman and injuring her husband. (Darren Mccollester / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Romney signs into law a new health care reform bill during a ceremony at Faneuil Hall April 12, 2006 in Boston. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy joined Romney for the signing of the bill, which made Massachusetts the first state in the country to require all residents have health insurance. His support of a plan that many feel was an inspiration for "Obamacare" has put the Republican on the defensive ahead of the 2012 elections. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Romney and his wife Ann turn to wave from the red carpet in front of the Statehouse, in Boston, as he completes his "lone walk" out on Jan. 3, 2007, the day before his replacement, Deval Patrick, is sworn in as the new governor. (Steven Senne / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Romney officially announces he is entering the race for the Republican presidential nomination Feb. 13, 2007 at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Romney kicked off his three-day, four state announcement tour of Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, addressing the need to build a "new American dream" by strengthening families and education. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Romney speaks on faith in America at The George Bush Presidential Library on Texas A & M University campus Dec. 6, 2007 in College Station, Texas. Romney talked about the role of religion in government and his Mormon faith. As a young missionary, Romney spent several years in France. (Ben Sklar / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Romney speaks, alongside his sons and wife, during a post-primary rally on Jan. 29, 2008 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Romney came in second to John McCain. Days earlier, McCain took the South Carolina primary, where Romney placed fourth. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Trailing John McCain following the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, Romney calls it quits during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee on Feb. 7, 2008 in Washington. He's seen here, waving goodbye to the crowd with his wife Ann. (Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Romney shakes hands with Sen. John McCain after endorsing his presidential bid in Boston on Feb. 14, 2008. Romney had just ended his own, unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination. All in all, Romney won 11 primaries and caucuses and was considered to be on McCain's short-list for vice president. (Darren Mccollester / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Romney reacts to the crowd on day three of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center on Sept. 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minn. Having failed in his own bid to headline the party ticket, Romney threw his support toward John MCCain, who was officially nominated on the last day of the convention. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," written by Romney, is seen in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2010. The major theme of the book is the idea of American exceptionalism - meant to address Romney's belief that President Barack Obama spends too much time abroad apologizing for past national trangressions. (Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Volunteers participate in a Mitt Romney phone bank fundraiser, Monday, May 16, 2011, in Las Vegas. The former Massachusetts governor worked with volunteers to reach out to voters and donors through cell phones and computers. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announces he joining the race for President of the United States, June 2, 2011, during a campaign event at Bittersweet Farm in Stratham, N.H. (Stephan Savoia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann embrace at the Hotel Fort Des Moines on the night of the Iowa Caucuses Jan. 3, 2012 in Des Moines, Iowa. On the night of the Iowa contest, Mitt Romney was projected the winner by a mere eight votes, but on Jan. 19, the Iowa GOP declared that after certifying the results, Santorum had officially won the primary by 34 votes. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Former presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, announces his endorsement of Mitt Romney during a town hall meeting at Central High School Jan. 4, 2012 in Manchester, N.H. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Romney takes center stage during his primary night rally with members of his family, left to right, Matt, Tagg, Craig, wife Ann, Ben and Josh Romney following the first-in-the-nation primary at Southern New Hampshire University Jan. 10, 2012 in Manchester, N.H. Romney finished first in the state's primary election with 39% of the vote and collected seven delegates. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Mitt Romney waves to supporters behind him as he takes the podium on primary night in Columbia, South Carolina on Jan. 21, 2012. Romney conceded defeat in the South Carolina primary to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who came from behind to beat him by 12 percent. (Pool / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Romney shakes hands with supporters at his Florida primary night rally in Tampa, Jan. 31. Romney beat his four opponents and collected the state's 50 delegates, putting him in the lead with 87 delegates, ahead of Newt Gingrich's 26. (Steve Nesius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Mitt Romney shakes hands with businessman and real estate developer Donald Trump at the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas, Feb. 2. Trump re-injected himself and his wealth into the Republican presidential race by endorsing Romney, a day after the front-runner stumbled with remarks suggesting he was indifferent to America's poor. (Steve Marcus / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets his wife and family along with vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, his wife and family on stage after accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 30, in Tampa, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Romney demonstrates mastery of fundraising loopholes

  1. Transcript of: Romney demonstrates mastery of fundraising loopholes

    MADDOW: One of the stranger half secret little twists this year's presidential politics is that the presumed Republican front -runner, the candidate who says he is the one to beat, whomever everyone seems willing to agree is the one to beat, actually has a lot of people on his own side who do not like him. In South Carolina , one group of Republicans responded to news of Mitt Romney the front-runner by trying to draft New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to run against him. The Tea Party FreedomWorks says it will fund an effort to block Mr. Romney from becoming the nominee. Another Tea Party group, the Western Representation PAC , has a stop Romney campaign. Also, the Club for Growth , a heavyweight these days in Republican fiscal policy, calls Mr. Romney a flip flopper. And those are just the folks on the right, his own side, who do not like Mitt Romney for his politics or the way he combs his hair or wears his khakis or whatever. This guy, Fred Karger , is actually completing against Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination. Mr. Karger is a little known candidate, which is a polite way of saying he doesn't really have a chance. But Mr. Karger has made what seems to be a substantive legal complaint about Mitt Romney . In June, he wrote to state officials in Massachusetts saying he thinks Mr. Romney may have violated Massachusetts voting laws in 2009 and 2010 when he voted in the special election for Ted Kennedy 's old Senate seat won by Republican Senator Scott Brown . Mr. Romney voted once in the primary and once in the general election in Massachusetts . At the time that he cast those ballots, he claimed he was living in his son's basement in Belmont , Massachusetts , having sold his own multimillion dollar estate there in April 2009 . His son's basement at the time was an unfinished space -- meaning that Mitt Romney , a multimillionaire, was claiming himself to be the legal resident of his son's unfinished basement. He is claiming under Massachusetts law that his son's unfinished basement was the center of his domestic, social, and civic life. Massachusetts officials told us when we asked there would be no investigation into these claims against Romney made by Mr. Karger . But despite having a number of people on his own side who really ostentatiously do not like him and are willing to say so out loud, Mitt Romney , of course, also has his fans -- people who do like him and write rather large checks to further his political career. He has powerful and wealthy people who really like him, want him to run and want him to win. We're just not necessarily allowed to know who those people are. In March of this year, " The Wall Street Journal " reported that the Romney campaign had begun a 15-city tour to shake the trees for big donations, as in $50,000 big donations. The campaign set a goal of $50 million to be raised by early summer, saying they thought that would be enough to scare off anybody thinking of wondering into Mitt Romney 's race. We know now from campaign records that some of Mitt Romney 's very rich friends got out their fancy checkbooks and their Montblanc pens and started inking zeros, even though they didn't make their $50 million goal. One of the big donations he got was from W Spann LLC . Now, W Spann LLC is a little mysterious. It is listed -- its headquarters are listed as being on Madison Avenue in New York City . But this group, this Spann Company , was only created when it was registered with the state of Delaware , land of mysterious corporations, back in March. The incorporation papers were filed by this young Boston lawyer. We don't know who her client was or what this new corporation planned to do as a business. We do know that this particular lawyer specializes in something called wealth transfer strategies. And the very next month, after she filed the incorporation papers for W Spann LLC , W Spann LLC did, in fact, transfer a whole bunch of wealth. In April , W Spann transferred $ 1 million -- not to Mr. Romney's campaign directly, but to a PAC that's being run for his benefit. Despite seemingly to exist as a single page with three stock photos and a giant "contribute" button and some boilerplate talked about candidates, plural, that PAC Restore Our Future , is really all about Mitt Romney . Restore Our Future is run by Mitt Romney 's backers. They say they are raising money for Mitt Romney . They have had Mitt Romney solicit donations for their pro- Mitt Romney PAC at the PAC 's events. It's a Mitt Romney gig. They raised more than 12 million bucks in the first half of the year. And 1 /3 of what they raised came in million dollar chunks from four sources, including the aforementioned mysterious W Spann LLC , a company that seems to have done pretty much nothing besides give $ 1 million on April 28th for the betterment of Mitt Romney 's political career. On July 11th , two weeks before this Mitt Romney PAC had to file its report with federal elections officials, two weeks before that PAC was to reveal its donors, this company , W Spann LLC , shut down. Its wealth transfer specialist lawyer filed this certificate of cancellation with the state of Delaware . So, whatever this company was supposed to be, whatever it was, after founding itself, submitting a single $ 1 million check on Mitt Romney 's behalf, the mysterious W Spann LLC was then officially dissolved. That's all it did as a company . That's what the company was for, apparently -- to deliver 1 million bucks for Mitt Romney 's political benefit via a source that soon disappeared, a source that could not be traced. So, where did that million dollars come from? Who gave that money ? Mr. Romney's old investment firm , Bain Capital , says W Spann was not affiliated with them or anybody that works for them. Next guess, anyone? Was it a Girl Scout troop maybe? You know, cookie sales this year, I hear, were great. Could it have been the government of China maybe? How about a Mexican drug cartel? How about Mitt Romney himself? We do not know. We just do not know. Joining us now is the investigative reporter who got everybody asking these questions today by putting these dots together -- Michael Isikoff , NBC News national investigative correspondent. Michael , congratulations on breaking this story. Appreciate having you here.


    MADDOW: Do we know whose money this is? Is there any way to find out? Could it be foreign money ? Could it be Romney's own money ? Is there any way to know?

    ISIKOFF: It certainly could be anything. It's actually a rather intriguing Washington mystery. You know, you certainly laid out a -- one scenario that people have speculated about, the Bain Capital connection. Ropes & Gray , the law firm that Cameron Casey works for, has long represented Bain Capital , the firm that Mitt Romney once headed. Bain Capital does have an office in that 590 Madison Avenue skyscraper that W Spann listed its address as. But Bain Capital 's spokesman in a rather emphatic denial to me said nobody at the firm is part of this entity. Now, that does raise the question, could it be clients of the firm or could it be somebody else in 590 Madison Avenue ? There's UBS. There's Bank of America . There's CEMEX. There's a lot of other blue chip firms that have this address. What we do know is I spoke to the management company at 590 Madison Avenue . They say they never heard of W Spann and have no such tenant.

    MADDOW: Why did you figure this out? Why did you start chasing the W Spann connection in the first place ? What about it stood out to you?

    ISIKOFF: Well, first of all, the million dollars. You don't see that every day. And when you see a huge check like that, it does kind of raise your eyebrows. And I saw caught -- this was filed in the Restore Our Future filings with the FEC late on Friday. There were a couple stories over the weekend that said people couldn't explain where this was. And that got my juices going. We did a full LexisNexis search, database search on Monday, and found the Delaware court papers. I called the Delaware secretary of state's office. I ordered the court incorporation and dissolution papers, saw the dates, saw the name Cameron Casey , and was able to sort of piece what we've gotten so far together.

    MADDOW: Is there any evidence that this company ever did anything other than form, give a million dollars to Mitt Romney , and disband? Is there any evidence they did anything else?

    ISIKOFF: Not in the public record. And that's precisely the question. And that's why there's going to be calls tomorrow from some campaign finance reform groups for a Justice Department and Federal Election Commission investigation into this. Look, it is a federal crime to give money in the name of another. That's called a straw donation. The Justice Department has made vigorous prosecutions of this over the years. This is sort of can be a form of this. If W Spann had no other purpose but was only set up for -- to funnel money to restore our future, the PAC , then it is arguably a straw donation. Somebody is trying to conceal their identity by using this arguably sham company to make this donation.

    MADDOW: Michael Isikoff , NBC news national investigative correspondent -- Michael , I love the way you think. I love this work. And the way you do it on this. Thank you for following this trailing and thanks for joining us.

    ISIKOFF: Thanks, Rachel.


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