The bad idea was sparked, like many less-than-great ones, in a high school classroom. Seniors in an AP government class in Anoka County, Minnesota, were watching a Colbert Report segment about the host’s fake super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, from the 2012 election cycle. After watching the clip, 18-year-olds Josh Norman and Charlie Vail were so "motivated by his audacity and decided to mess with bureaucracy." They named their super PAC the Filthy Moose and sent in the paperwork to the Federal Election Commission last October.
They weren’t the first students to have to watch the show as a way of learning about the tangled web of laws governing campaign finance. A study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who watched Stephen Colbert’s funny explanations of the confusing and infuriating world of campaign finance understood the system better than those who watched TV news or read newspapers. Years of news clips and FEC filings also show that the segments inspired many of those enlightened people to form their own similarly fake unlimited fundraising machines. There was This PAC Has Nothing to Do With Taylor Swift, created by three high school students in Rochester, Minnesota, who watched Colbert. A 17-year-old in Minnetonka, Minnesota, started Americans for a Better Yesterday, Tomorrow. (New York may be a capital of secretive super PAC fundraising, but Minnesota seems to be a hotbed of super PACs created only to prove how easy it is to try to exert outsize influence on American politics.)
"I’ll be damned!" says Trevor Potter, former chair of the FEC and Colbert’s super PAC lawyer, upon hearing that people were still watching the now four- and five-year-old segments and taking action. "The segments seemed very of the moment. I guess it makes sense that people would still use them as a teaching tool, though."
It is usually easy to tell which super PACs were created by teenagers. If a treasurer is simply listed as "Treasurer" on the Federal Election Commission paperwork, you are likely dealing with an organization that hopes to take advantage of the opportunities offered in the 2010 Citizens United decision. If someone running the super PAC is instead called the Archduke or Corporate Antelope, you’re probably dealing with a teenager. Norman is the self-declared "Emperor" of the Filthy Moose PAC, while Vail is, according to FEC documentation, the "Treasurer, Not a Werewolf" of the organization.
As for the PAC’s name, Norman explains, "I have a sweater with a moose that has boots on it." The super PAC’s name is somewhat similar to one used by a skincare company in Maine called the Dirty Moose, which, according to its website, entices potential customers with the slogan, "We have enough soap to wash a dirty moose."
As both of the budding titans of secretive campaign cash live in the city, they do not see many moose. "Maybe the moose is filthy because he’s in the city," Norman adds. "Maybe it’s the social construct of a moose."
And, no, they didn’t tell their parents they were going to follow in the footsteps of the late Ham Rove. "We did the teenage thing," Norman says. "We did it, and then we warned them that we did it afterward. We didn’t think about the consequences."
There were, in fact, unintended consequences. Although it is impossibly easy to start a super PAC — as Colbert PAC and its army of clones make clear — it is somewhat more arduous to keep up with the paperwork required by such a decision. Norman and Vail are unfamiliar with campaign finance law, as they have yet to obtain high school diplomas, and as such were unaware that you still have to file reports for a super PAC — even a super PAC that appears to have ghosted on the election cycle entirely.
In February, Norman and Vail received a scary-looking letter from the FEC, informing them that they would be fined if they failed to send the required end-of-the-year report, documenting all the money they did not raise or spend.
"We were freaked out by it," Norman says. He invited Vail over, and they spent about five hours Googling things that were probably along the lines of "How Do You Fill Out FEC Paperwork" until they were able to figure out how to avoid large fines. They attached a letter to the requisite forms, in case they were still in trouble and needed an extra bit of youthful charm to avoid punishment. "We here at the Filthy Moose," the letter begins, "take pride in the fact that this organization was able to be created by 2 high school Seniors. We do not, however, understand why we are at risk of penalty or fines for not being able to report our expenditures to you, the wonderful FEC. ... We apologize for being a bureaucratic waste of time. Please understand that no money was even produced; definitely not exceeding $50,000. Sorry we are stupid kids. Good day!"
The letter was signed by Treasurer, Not Werewolf Charles Joseph Vail.
"My general view is that Colbert did a great job informing the public about campaign finance," says Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director at the Campaign Legal Center. "Without being funny, eyes glaze over when someone like me talks about campaign finance. But maybe the audience would have been better served if he took the joke further and said that it’s easy to set super PACs up, but that it takes a bit more work to maintain them."
"Setting up a joke super PAC," he adds, "is a bad idea."
Luckily for the departed Filthy Moose and its ilk, the FEC doesn’t spend much time squeezing prank super PACs for fines. The closest that high schoolers seem to have gotten to getting punished for starting a super PAC and not thinking it out too much was when students in Ohio named theirs "Killary Clinton." That got them a visit from the Department of Homeland Security last December.
Potter adds that it is unlikely that a joke PAC will get fined in the future, as the FEC usually only punishes committees that are in the business of raising and spending money. Technical violations that don’t affect the election aren’t a priority.
Plenty of people besides students are setting up super PACs that never raise a cent or bother filing any paperwork. According to Christian Hilland at the FEC, 547 super PACs created this cycle failed to file necessary paperwork on time. These groups include White Lives Matter, TuckFrump.com, and PACFARTS — Political Action Committee For Artistic Reach Towards Students. A Florida man named Josue LaRose has set up hundreds of super PACs since 2010 (the Center for Public Integrity reported last December that he is "in violation of 2,052 counts of election law").
The influence of his groups is limited to having the power to give FEC employees migraines.
"At the present time," Hilland writes in an email, "there isn’t a way for us to discern between committees that are filing for the purposes of influencing a federal election or those that are simply submitting reports for their own amusement." There are 32 analysts at the FEC tasked with reading all the paperwork. When you total up all the paperwork from candidates, super PACs, and other committees, "So far in the 2015-2016 election cycle," Hilland says, "these analysts have been responsible for reviewing nearly 70,000 report filings consisting of 14 million pages and $3.7 billion in financial activity."
As for those filings that were merely satire? The FEC is not a fan, and is exhausted from having to read all of them. "Any false or misleading report filed with the Commission is a distraction to the agency’s goal of disclosing accurate campaign finance data to the public, and consumes additional staff resources and taxpayer dollars," he writes.
Joke super PACs aren’t alone in increasing their output this year, as those 14 million pages leafed through by the FEC prove. The presidential candidates and the super PACs that love them have already raised more than a billion dollars this election cycle. Most Americans side with the Filthy Moose and think this is ridiculous; a New York Times/CBS News poll from last summer showed that 84 percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in politics.
Meanwhile, the FEC is sort of falling apart. Gridlock, tiny budgets, and an ever-growing number of groups testing how much they can get away with means that the commission is completely overwhelmed. Last May, FEC commissioner Ann Ravel told the New York Times, "I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional."
This situation will continue to exist as long as Congress and the White House continue to let the FEC flail, and it was not caused by a handful of teenagers trying out a novel way of being politically active — but super PACs designed to protest campaign finance don’t do much to alleviate the problem. Every hour the FEC spends sending notices to super PACs that exist in name only means another hour diverted from investigating the many real election violations happening out there as groups raise billions of dollars from sources known and unknown.
So to other high schoolers destined to watch those Colbert clips during AP government, Ryan recommends not responding by making the FEC’s life miserable. Setting up a super PAC as a joke, "that’s not real political involvement," he says. "If you want to get involved, volunteer with a candidate or a political party." Or, if you truly care about election reform, he adds, volunteer with U.S. PIRG or Common Cause. "Get involved with the issue in the real world instead of making a joke."
Potter added another option: "If you’re going to have a super PAC, do something about it! Run ads, lobby your local member of Congress, do something about this mess that we’re in. We could use a lot of widespread lobbying on this issue if people want to make a difference."
Norman does hope to stay involved in politics, and to maybe become a lobbyist for the Environmental Protection Agency someday. He caucused for the first time a few weeks ago, and was a bit shocked by how it quickly became a Midwestern comedy of manners: "There was lots of people saying ‘No offense,’ followed by a lot of offense." The pair also went to a Bernie rally earlier this year. "It’s probably a little ironic," he says, "that we started a super PAC and follow Bernie’s campaign."
When told that MTV News was planning to talk to the FEC about joke super PACs, the Emperor and Treasurer, Not Werewolf of the Filthy Moose said to pass along an "I’m sorry."
"Give them a nice finger gun and a wink for us," they added.