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Justice asked to probe mystery donation to pro-Romney group

Image: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Romney waves as he leaves a campaign stop in Los Angeles
Mitt Romney waves as he leaves a campaign appearance in Los Angeles on July 20.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

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.

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.