This story was updated on May 27, 2016.
More than 70 cents of every dollar Libertarian Gary Johnson — a man who could play spoiler in battleground states in November — has spent so far in his 2016 presidential bid has gone to the consulting firm of his campaign manager, Ron Nielson, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of federal campaign finance filings.
This has irked some Libertarians ahead of their national convention, which starts Friday in Orlando, Florida, where party activists will select their presidential and vice presidential nominees.
“It’s extremely troubling,” said George Phillies, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Massachusetts. “We’re supposed to be fiscally prudent.”
Johnson is a former two-term governor of New Mexico who was the party’s presidential nominee four years ago, earning about 1 percent of the vote nationally.
Phillies calls Johnson, whose 2012 presidential campaign is still roughly $1.9 million in debt, “unacceptable.” Earlier this month, he sent a letter to his fellow Libertarian National Convention delegates urging them to support “a candidate who focuses his resources on outreach, not on paying his campaign advisors.”
Libertarians are hoping to be a force to be reckoned with in 2016 by tapping into dissatisfaction with Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump — those parties’ all-but-certain presidential nominees.
More than a dozen candidates are challenging Johnson for the Libertarian presidential nomination this year including technology entrepreneur John McAfee and Austin Petersen, owner of news magazine and website LibertarianRepublic.com.
Johnson has spent about $334,000 since he launched his bid in January. By contrast, Peterson has spent about $36,000 campaigning for the Libertarian presidential nomination so far, with about one-quarter going to consultants, and McAfee has spent about $8,000, with about half going to consultants.
Documents filed with the Federal Election Commission show Johnson campaign has paid Nielson’s Utah-based Liberty Consulting Service $239,600 for “campaign consulting services” since January.
What exactly does that mean?
“They’re doing a lot of services,” Johnson campaign lawyer Christina Sirois told the Center for Public Integrity. “Liberty Consulting Service provides overall campaign management services, including managing staff, advertising, research and more.”
Sirois added that the Johnson campaign would soon file amended campaign finance reports because it erroneously listed the Liberty Consulting Service’s name as “Liberty Consulting Services” in January.
The Center for Public Integrity had raised questions about this vendor after discovering that there was no “Liberty Consulting Services” registered to do business in Utah.
For years, transparency advocates have been calling for greater detail in how campaigns report their expenditures.
Vague terms like “campaign consulting services,” are, said Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, “not very useful information for voters to keep tabs on how the candidates are spending the money they’re raising.”
But, he added: “So long as the candidate is paying fair market value for the goods and services the candidate is receiving there aren’t any legal issues.”
Earlier this week, Johnson took to Facebook to address Libertarian delegates who have been concerned about his outstanding 2012 campaign debt.
“The key fact for you, as a Delegate, to know is that NO funds being raised for the 2016 campaign will be used to reduce the 2012 debts shown on our campaign disclosure reports,” Johnson wrote.
On May 5, Johnson’s campaign submitted its latest proposal to settle its debt — the crux of which is to liquidate its list of email addresses of its supporters — and is currently waiting for the FEC to approve the plan.
The 15 state parties set to benefit are Alabama, Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Gary Johnson's campaign manager. It is Ron Neilson.