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New 'super PAC' forms to back Howard Berman

November 09, 2011|By Tom Hamburger and Melanie Mason | Washington Bureau
  • Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, left, faces a tough reelection battle against San Fernando Valley Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman.
Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, left, faces a tough reelection battle against… (Stefan Zaklin / EPA )

A new "super PAC" emerged this month to back the candidacy of Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat who faces a tough reelection battle in part because he must compete with a neighboring San Fernando Valley Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman, for a newly redrawn congressional seat.

The new super PAC, set up through a California law firm, may be yet another sign of the wave of money that will hit not only Berman's race, but others as well.

Details of the new super PAC, called the Valley-Israel Alliance, were hard to come by but its very existence, on top of a handful of others, may signal new power for these "super" groups -- that can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions. They have emerged already to back nearly every major presidential candidate. Now they are emerging in congressional contests, and reform advocates are sounding apoplectic.

A lawyer for the new group said it represents a coalition of U.S. and pro-Israel interests acting "independently supporting Howard Berman's reelection." The lawyer, Brad Hertz of the Sutton Law Group, declined to provide further details on the group's backers or its fundraising plans. His colleague, Jesse Mainardi, serves as treasurer of the group and signed the filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission last week.

"Our campaign does not know Jesse Mainardi, nor do we know his activities or intentions, and Congressman Berman is certainly not planning on attending any events or fund-raisers hosted by his organization," said the congressman's campaign manager, Michael Berman.

The FEC registration this month represents formation of one of the first super PACs for a specific House candidate. At least one has been registered on behalf of a Senate incumbent, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. And several have been set up to promote groups of candidates, such as one benefiting the so-called Young Guns, the nickname for conservative freshmen Republicans.

Under terms of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and subsequent interpretations by the Federal Election Commission, these new super PACs must be technically independent of candidates and their official campaigns. This year has seen establishment of super PACs connected to presidential candidates. Many are run by former political aides to the candidates.

The emergence of these big-dollar campaign advocacy committees is distressing to reformers, who say it opens the way for a return to unbridled influence of big money interests.

"It is the most dangerous vehicle for corruption in our political system today," said Fred Wertheimer who led the effort to enact campaign reforms after the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. "The candidate-specific super PAC exists to eviscerate the limits on contributions to candidates that were enacted to preventĀ  corruption."

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