TIME Campaign Finance

The Political Kingmaker Nobody Knows

Highly Caffeinated Drinks, Five Hour Energy And Monster Energy Cited In 13 Death Reports
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — The tiny bottles of 5-hour Energy that made Manoj Bhargava a billionaire are just about everywhere. But the Princeton dropout and former Hindu monk is nearly invisible.

Bhargava’s investment firm ETC Capital gave $2.5 million to the Republican Governors Association last year, joining conservative billionaires Sheldon Adelson and David Koch on the list of top five donors to the group that works to elect Republican governors.

Yet RGA Chairman and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said, “I don’t know him.”

The 62-year-old Bhargava and several of his Michigan-based companies have given at least $5.3 million to candidates for state office and political groups around the country since 2009, according to state and federal campaign filings. But Bhargava remains a mystery man, even to many of the people who are benefiting from his largesse, including Bobby Schostak, who received a $25,000 donation from ETC Capital in 2010 during his first campaign for Michigan Republican Party chairman.

Schostak, who recently left the job, said, “I would have trouble knowing it was him if he walked in the door, honestly.”

Few people have given as much to politics at the state level as Bhargava and his companies in the past five years, and donors of such generosity are typically well known and aggressively courted by politicians who need their favor and funding to pay for campaigns. Yet Bhargava avoids the spotlight, both in politics and life: he said in a 2012 television interview that fame puts “a bull’s-eye on your forehead.” And he’s gone to great lengths to obscure his political activity, even as his signature product draws more scrutiny from some of the same politicians he’s supporting.

Only a fraction of the donations were made in Bhargava’s name or by the companies that oversee the production and marketing of 5-hour Energy. But an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that he makes donations through several of his more than 70 limited liability companies. As such, the motives for his political giving are as muddy as the circuitous way in which the donations are made.

He gives most heavily to Republicans but has donated to Democrats, too. Many of the donations appear to have ties back to Michigan, where his businesses are based. Nearly a quarter of the donations affiliated with Bhargava went to candidates for state attorney general, who have the power to investigate his business, and the organizations that support their election efforts.

Attorneys general in five states are suing Bhargava’s energy shot business, accusing it of deceptive marketing practices. A federal court in California is considering nine consolidated class-action lawsuits brought against 5-hour Energy in seven states, though the cases have been partially dismissed. And the Food and Drug Administration is investigating the safety of the shot, having received reports of more than 20 deaths potentially linked to its consumption. The political giving tied to Bhargava has only increased as investigations have multiplied.

Bhargava did not return multiple calls and emails sent over the past month seeking comment about his political giving, and a reporter who recently visited the two-story brick-and-glass headquarters of his companies was told Bhargava was not available. Several people who have worked with or live near him declined to comment, citing a fear of legal reprisals, or legal agreements barring them from speaking about Bhargava and 5-hour Energy.

Political operatives in Michigan say the relative anonymity seems to be how Bhargava prefers to do business.

“People are very conscious of the fact that he’s very secretive,” said Mark Brewer, the former chairman of Michigan’s Democratic Party.

The price of privacy

Bhargava grew up in Lucknow, India, a city of roughly 5 million in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. He moved with his family at 14 to Philadelphia so that his father could pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He won a scholarship to The Hill School, a prestigious boarding school in suburban Philadelphia and, later, admission to Princeton University.

But Bhargava only spent a year at the Ivy League school, dropping out in 1973, according to The Daily Princetonian. He then spent more than a decade traveling between Hindu monasteries in India as a monk and working odd jobs back in the U.S. He returned to the U.S. permanently in the early 1990s and took over the family’s plastics company, Prime PVC, in 1996, growing it into a multimillion-dollar business that he sold to a private equity firm in 2007, according to multiple news reports.

By then, he had moved to Michigan and was on the hunt for a new business. He abandoned his first venture, the anti-hangover pill Chaser, but he won big with 5-hour Energy — a flavored energy drink that contains caffeine, vitamins and amino acids. As he has told it, Bhargava replicated an energy drink he stumbled upon at a trade show in 2003 after its developers refused to sell him the recipe. Sales of the 1.93-ounce bottles propelled Bhargava onto Forbes’ list of billionaires in 2012.

Bhargava credits much of 5-hour Energy’s success to the decision to place the small yellow and red bottles at checkout counters, rather than in coolers with the other energy drinks. The business has also engaged in an aggressive pattern of litigation, having sued more than a dozen competitors for producing or distributing similar products. Bhargava’s office is said to contain a mock graveyard, made up of the bottles of failed competitors.

In 2012, Bhargava publicly took the giving pledge championed by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, which encourages billionaires to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. Three years earlier, he transferred a stake appraised at $623.6 million in Innovation Ventures, a parent company of 5-hour Energy, to his Rural India Supporting Trust, which he has described as “the largest charity in India that nobody knows.” The organization has spent more than $60 million since 2008 supporting development projects in India, according to tax forms it has filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

In public speeches, Bhargava has prided himself on his modest lifestyle. He lives today in Farmington Hills, the same well-off Detroit suburb where 5-hour Energy is headquartered. While his five-bedroom, six-bath home is worth about $1.7 million, he has forgone the flashier Bloomfield Hills or other tony Detroit suburbs where someone of his wealth might be expected to live.

In many respects that home — and the fight to build it — highlight both the pugnaciousness of Bhargava and his quest for privacy while staying in the middle of everything.

Instead of a single home, the low-profile multimillionaire planned a 17-house development sandwiched between two existing tracts of homes, with a gated entrance, private road and a second, eight-foot fence surrounding his home in a city with only a handful of other gated neighborhoods.

By the time other homes in the development hit the market last year, listed at more than $600,000, Bhargava’s team had already sued both its initial developer and a neighbor who distributed fliers opposing the development. Both suits were settled, confidentially.

A complex web

When the trim, slightly balding Bhargava speaks publicly about his energy shot company, he emphasizes its common-sense approach. No one in the company uses business-school jargon, he told a 2012 meeting of the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce, and he jokes that he doesn’t even know how to spell the words “strategic initiatives.” He says that his job is to make complex ideas simple.

But Bhargava’s various business ventures are anything but easy to follow. More than 70 limited liability companies, some of which are no longer active, have been registered at the address of 5-hour Energy’s headquarters. Such businesses, which as their name implies limit the personal liability of their owners, also offer tax benefits and, in Michigan and elsewhere, aren’t subject to the same restrictions on political activity as other corporations. Those LLCs include a host of other ventures, such as investment funds and Bhargava’s backing of several upcoming Hollywood films. The business of running 5-hour Energy itself is composed of three separate LLCs: Innovation Ventures, Living Essentials and MicroDose Sales.

For political purposes, Bhargava’s most active company has been ETC Capital, which bills itself on its website as “founded on the basis of opportunistic investing” and invests in companies that don’t qualify for traditional loans or private equity.

Since 2009, ETC Capital has given nearly $4.9 million to state candidates and political groups across the country, which helped it become one of the top 50 donors to state races in 2014. It’s unclear why the giving has come in ETC Capital’s name or who in the company decides which political groups merit donations.

In at least one case, a donation given by ETC Capital to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson was later publicly represented as sponsorship of a fundraiser by 5-hour Energy, according to The New York Times.

Seven donations totaling $319,500 were made during 2009 and 2010 in the name of Ted Mills, a former managing director at ETC Capital. Mills, however, told the Center for Public Integrity he didn’t make the donations, which were spread across five political action committees. Three of those were connected to Mike Bishop, a former Michigan Senate majority leader who ran for state attorney general in 2010. Mills declined further comment.

Matt Miner, treasurer of the three committees connected to Bishop, said the committees’ policies for handling donations from limited liability corporations, like ETC Capital, was to attribute them to someone affiliated with the corporation, such as Mills.

Giving to state investigators

Since 2009, companies tied to Bhargava have donated more than $1.2 million to candidates for attorney general and political committees that support them, according to data from the IRS and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The bulk of that giving, more than $850,000, has benefited two Republican groups: the Republican Attorneys General Association and the Republican State Leadership Committee. Bhargava’s companies also donated more than $310,000 to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, and more than $40,000 went directly to state attorney general candidates from both parties in at least seven states.

Those donations haven’t insulated Bhargava and 5-hour Energy. Since 2013, 33 state attorneys general have investigated the marketing or safety of 5-hour Energy. Five of those states — Indiana, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have sued the company since last July, accusing it of making deceptive claims in its marketing. Ohio settled with the company in July without filing suit, after investigating the company for deceptive marketing, with the energy drink company agreeing to pay $1 million for research or public education on childhood disease. Ohio and Indiana are the only states among the six with Republican attorneys general.

Two of the five attorneys general to sue Bhargava’s company in the past year received campaign donations from him as candidates. Washington’s Ferguson, a Democrat, returned a $1,000 donation from ETC Capital in July 2014, one day after his state filed the suit against 5-hour Energy. When asked recently about the donations, his office referred to prior public statements in which Ferguson has acknowledged personally soliciting a donation from Bhargava’s company.

Indiana’s Greg Zoeller, a Republican, also sued Bhargava’s company after receiving a total of $7,500 in donations from the Bhargava-connected Oakland Law Group in 2011 and 2012, which placed the law firm among Zoeller’s top 10 donors in that two-year period.

Andrew Buroker, the treasurer of Zoeller’s campaign, said in an email that while Zoeller doesn’t solicit contributions from organizations under investigation, these donations wouldn’t be returned because they were made before the state’s investigation into 5-hour Energy began.

After The New York Times last year highlighted efforts by 5-hour Energy to influence states not to file suit, Bhargava and his company accused attorneys general of soliciting political contributions from the company while it was being investigated by them.

“Ninety percent of my money is pledged to charity,” Bhargava said in a statement to the newspaper. “I am certainly not going to take it from the poor and give it to the attorney general.”

Not showing up in Michigan

Donations to Michigan political groups given in the name of ETC Capital, Mills and Bhargava totaled more than $450,000 in 2009 and 2010, according to IRS and state filings. Since then, none of them has donated directly to Michigan groups or candidates. But national groups that have received the biggest checks from Bhargava’s companies have been very active in Michigan politics. The timing of the donations and the spending by such groups in the state raises questions about whether the money was earmarked for Michigan.

For example, eight weeks after ETC Capital gave $275,000 to the Republican Governors Association in October 2013, the group gave $276,000 to the Michigan Republican Party. In 2014, Bhargava’s company gave $2.5 million to the governors’ association, which paid $3.2 million on the same day to the media company it used to place ads backing the re-election of Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Bhargava’s company also gave heavily to Republican groups active in Michigan’s 2014 attorney general race. In 2013, ETC Capital gave $125,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which donated $34,000 to Republican incumbent Bill Schuette’s campaign on the same day.

Yet numerous Michigan politicians, ranging from his local mayor to statewide political bosses, say they barely know Bhargava, even the ones who have benefited from the political donations of his various companies.

A spokeswoman for Schuette said he has never met with Bhargava and doesn’t know him. Snyder, who won re-election in 2014 thanks, in part, to an estimated $7.4 million in ad spending by the RGA, has met with Bhargava only once — during Snyder’s first year in office in 2011, according to a spokeswoman.

Several Michigan political insiders also said they don’t know of particular pieces of legislation or policy issues that Bhargava has tried to influence.

“What was strange is he never asked for anything back,” said Ron Weiser, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and an ex-national finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. “Usually people want something.”

Bhargava’s low-key approach stands in stark contrast to other wealthy political donors in the state, such as the scions of Richard DeVos, who made a fortune after co-founding Amway Corp., the world’s largest direct seller.

“In Michigan everyone knows the DeVos family,” said Susan Demas, publisher of the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. “They’ve made no secret of the fact that they’re willing to be big donors and fundraisers.”

Bhargava’s name, meanwhile, appears sparingly in campaign finance filings. He appears to have made only two political donations in his own name: $1,000 to President George W. Bush’s campaign in 1999 and $500 a decade later to the campaign of Jim Townsend, a Democratic state representative in nearby Royal Oak.

Despite the donation to Bush, the bulk of political giving by Bhargava’s companies has so far been focused on state-level races. Michigan isn’t scheduled to elect a new governor until 2018, but presidential contenders are already visiting the state to shore up support for 2016. Last month, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush was in town talking to a packed room at Detroit’s convention center.

“Everybody who’s a player and who wants to be a player was there,” said Dennis Darnoi, a political consultant in Bhargava’s home base of Oakland County. “But he wasn’t.”

Associated Press reporter David Eggert contributed to this story.

This piece comes from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization. To follow the Center’s investigations into state government and politics, go here or follow them on Twitter.​

TIME Rand Paul

Rand Paul Proposes Boosting Defense Spending

Sen. Rand Paul Vaccine
Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during a news conference on Jan. 27, 2015.

His amendment would add $76.5 billion to the defense budget

Just weeks before announcing his 2016 presidential bid, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is completing an about-face on a longstanding pledge to curb the growth in defense spending.

In an olive branch to defense hawks hell-bent on curtailing his White House ambitions, the libertarian Senator introduced a budget amendment late Wednesday calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.

Paul’s amendment brings him in line with his likely presidential primary rivals, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced a measure calling for nearly the same level of increases just days ago. The amendment was first noticed by TIME and later confirmed by Paul’s office.

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.

Paul’s endorsement of increased defense spending represents a change in direction for the first-term lawmaker, who rose to prominence with his critiques of the size of the defense budget and foreign aid, drawing charges of advocating isolationism. Under pressure from fellow lawmakers and well-heeled donors, Paul in recent months has appeared to embrace the hawkish rhetoric that has defined the GOP in recent decades. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February Paul warned of the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “Without question, we must now defend ourselves and American interests,” he said. Asked about federal spending, he added, “for me, the priority is always national defense.”

The amendment was filed on the same day as House Republicans overwhelmingly supported a plan to alter their budget to give billions more to the Pentagon.

It’s not the first time that Paul has adjusted his position on a foreign policy matter to find greater appeal within his own party. Early in his Senate career, Paul advocated for the elimination of all aid to foreign governments, including Israel, but after criticism has since backtracked on that proposal.

Paul’s change-of-heart on the budget highlights the importance of the funding document to many likely presidential candidates. In addition to the increased defense spending, Rubio provided a roadmap to his all-but-certain presidential campaign, introducing over 25 amendments stating his desire to deliver weapons to Ukraine, create education tax credits, strengthen pro-life legislation, weaken collective bargaining agreements and ensure Medicare wouldn’t be “raided” by Obamacare.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is considering a presidential run, pointed to Rubio’s measure to increase defense spending as an example of how budget votes will impact the 2016 race. “That’s a great amendment,” says Graham, one of the Senate’s preeminent foreign policy hawks. “I think if you voted against Marco’s amendment you’d be probably on the outside of most people in the primary.”

Outside of Congress, other GOP presidential candidates have used the budget process to insulate themselves from tough political questions. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has relied on his outsider status to avoid commenting on everything from immigration to the gas tax. In New Hampshire earlier this month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dodged a question on securing the border by pointing toward dysfunction in Washington.

“I think that Congress needs to pass a budget and put conservative priorities on the table,” he said at a house party. “And in that budget there are ways that you could show the opposition to the use of executive orders, and so I hope they do that, and I hope they fully fund the department of homeland security…because how else are we going to secure the border. This is the only way that we can do it.”

“I think we need to increase spending on defense and homeland security,” Bush added.

Read next: Why Rand Paul is Attacking Ted Cruz

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Congress

Congress to Solve Problem It Created 18 Years Ago

House Republicans Vote On A New Majority Leader To Replace Cantor
Pete Marovich—Bloomberg/Getty Images U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, speaks during his weekly news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Boehner said terrorism has spread "exponentially" during President Barack Obama's administration and that Obama needs an "overall strategy" to stem the rise of terrorism in the Middle East. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Congress is on the verge of permanently solving a problem it created for itself 18 years ago.

The House expects to pass a major health care reform bill Thursday that would solve a recurring headache: a flawed formula for Medicare payments for doctors. For years, Congress has passed short-term patches—17 in all—temporarily fixing the problem just before doctors were slated to see their reimbursements drop suddenly.

Now, ahead of an April 1 deadline that would slice the Medicare payment rate by 21 percent, House leaders have struck a compromise that would permanently resolve the issue, roughly splitting the costs between beneficiaries and providers. The deal has garnered support from both progressive budget groups and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

“It’s time we did this,” says House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers. “We’ve been crutching along on one cane for all these years and finally we’re facing up to the responsibility of getting it over with.”

Negotiated by Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the House bill would make wealthy seniors pay up to 15% more in premiums beginning in 2018 and extend for two years funding for community health centers and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which faces its own spending deadline this fall. The bill would cost $141 billion over the next ten years, which will peel away support from some deficit hawks, even though it’s about a billion less than just kicking the can down the road.

“That’s pretty darn impressive,” says Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of the deal, which was easier to make than in years past as Medicare spending on physician services has dropped.

“It looks like to me it solves a problem that has been out there for about 18 years now, of a pay for that clearly was a phony pay-for,” adds Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. “It was a pay-for that was never going to work that Congress has never been willing to go to because it didn’t make sense.”

The question now is whether the Senate can pass the bill by Friday, when Congress plans to leave for a two-week recess. In the event that it can’t, the Senate will once again pass a short-term patch. “I just don’t know how you get it done before the end of this week in a way that’s befitting a review by the United States Senate and House,” says Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin. “It normally takes more than a few minutes to consider major legislation. … We’re not going to finish the budget until Friday morning.”

Democrats in the Senate have been more tepid in their support than their House colleagues, raising concerns over abortion provisions that have been countered in part after further negotiations. Several Democrats, including Sens. Chuck Schumer, Chris Murphy and Sherrod Brown, told TIME that they are concerned that the funding extension for CHIP is two, rather than four, years. But those concerns haven’t led them to state public opposition to the bill and it’s likely that there’s enough support among Senate Democrats to pass it. President Obama said Wednesday he’s got his pen “ready to sign a good, bipartisan bill.”

“We have a golden opportunity to accomplish something that people thought couldn’t be accomplished with this amount of toxicity, if you will, to the atmosphere,” says West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

“Getting the ‘doc fix’ done once and for all is a positive development,” adds Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and is “inclined” to support it. “I wish that it had four years for the CHIP program, but as Mick Jagger once famously said, ‘you don’t always get what you want.'”

For the bill to come up in the upper chamber by Friday, every senator would have to agree to skip procedural hurdles to vote on the bill. After a drawn-out fight over the Keystone XL pipeline and the delay in what was once an easy, bipartisan anti-human trafficking bill, top Republicans are worried that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats will slow down or kill the process. Reid has said that he will give his opinion of the deal once it passes the House.

“The incentives are there,” says Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. “Now it just comes to whether Harry Reid is once again going to obstruct the workings of the United States Senate.”

In an ironic twist, just as Congress looks to relieve itself from a perennial headache, reports have emerged defending the so-called ‘doc fix’ for doing what it was supposed to do: keep Medicare spending in line. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an anti-deficit group, wrote last year that Congress paid for its delays 98 percent of the time with much of the savings coming from health care programs.

“It always gets derided because it’s annoying and it’s flawed,” Loren Adler, the group’s research director, told Bloomberg recently. “It doesn’t work as intended, it’s a little bit silly in some ways and it’s a lobbying bonanza. That being said, it’s accomplished what was intended—it’s controlled the cost of Medicare.”

TIME Campaign Finance

How Super PACs Are Taking Over

US-VOTE-REPUBLICANS
Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images US Senator Ted Cruz( R-TX) smiles at the crowd while delivering remarks announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination to run for US president March 23, 2015, inside the full Vine Center at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va.

A new breed of high-dollar outside groups is reshaping the 2016 presidential race

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz says he no longer listens to classic rock, but he still found a way to channel the lyrics of John Lennon when he launched his presidential campaign. “Imagine,” he told students at Virginia’s Liberty University on March 23, repeating the refrain 38 times in a half-hour stem winder that felt less like a campaign speech than a guided tour of a conservative Valhalla.

The dreamy slogan may have seemed out of whack for the firebrand politician. But in some ways Cruz was just following the lead of an independent group that hopes to make him President.

Weeks before Cruz climbed onstage, the Stand for Principle PAC printed and passed out T-shirts and placards that read “Imagine Ted Cruz as President.” The group’s organizer, Maria Strollo Zack, says helping Cruz promote his message is just the start. Zack wants to raise as much as $50 million—perhaps more than the campaign—to pay for anything from television ads to grassroots outreach. “We’re rewriting the book on how super PACs can be leveraged,” she says.

So are Cruz’s rivals. Likely candidates such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have been deeply involved in setting up their outside-spending vehicles, installing top staff and drawing down funds to pay for early voter contact, including trips to primary states. Such efforts are the latest way to game the traditional campaign-finance system, which limits the amount of money individuals can give to candidates and forbids direct donations from corporations. The Cruz super PAC, for instance, is barred from directly coordinating campaign spending or strategy with Cruz, but it is able to raise and spend unlimited sums on the candidate’s behalf while collecting money from just about anyone.

In 2012 super PACs were used as blunt instruments of destruction: the group backing Mitt Romney devoted about 90% of the $142 million it spent overall to TV attack ads. But in the 2016 presidential race, these organizations are poised to play a much bigger role, taking over more-traditional campaign duties ranging from field organizing and voter turnout to direct mail and digital microtargeting. “They are becoming de facto campaigns,” says Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant who ran former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential super PAC in 2012.

Campaign-finance watchdogs say that super PACs, which were created in the wake of two 2010 court rulings, undermine spending limits that have governed elections for generations and allow high-dollar donors to amass influence that Congress has long sought to prevent. The new crop of super PACs are now pushing boundaries in ways that were unimaginable just five years ago. “The sky’s the limit.” says Carl Forti, a GOP strategist who co-founded the Romney super PAC in 2012.

Many Republican hopefuls have delayed their official campaign announcements so they can spend more time and energy seeding their outside groups. Bush, the former Florida governor, has been dropping in on donors’ conclaves across the Republican Party’s wealthiest precincts, soliciting massive checks for his Right to Rise super PAC. Mike Murphy, Bush’s longtime senior adviser, is expected to stay at the super PAC to orchestrate its strategy rather than migrate to the campaign.

Walker’s high-dollar outside group, Our American Revival, is run by the Wisconsin governor’s future campaign manager, Rick Wiley, who—like Walker’s spokesperson, senior political advisers and key field staff in states like Iowa and New Hampshire—is drawing a salary from the organization until the formal campaign kicks off. Former New York governor George Pataki charged up to $250,000 per head at a fundraiser for his group, We the People Not Washington, which features a form on its website for supporters to request a meeting with Pataki. And as Hillary Clinton marches toward a likely campaign launch, her super-PAC supporters at Ready for Hillary are laying the groundwork by adding to their email rolls and signing up a flurry of new members for the group’s finance council.

Much of this activity exploits a legal loophole. “What’s unique,” says Anthony Corrado, chairman of the board of trustees at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, “is candidates becoming associated with a super PAC before embarking on a campaign.” Building early receptacles for large checks may also limit the amount of time candidates are forced to spend raising money later on.

As the balance of power shifts toward super PACs, the strategists running them are studying the ways outside committees can be more than just attack machines once the campaigns take flight. “Every super PAC will have to decide what their mission should be and how they want to game plan,” says Austin Barbour, who will run former Texas governor Rick Perry’s super PAC if Perry jumps into the race. “But we’re in a post-TV age.” Super PACs will take on a variety of new tasks over the next year, from grassroots organizing and micro-targeting to digital operations. “Those will all be a part of any well-run super PAC this cycle,” predicts a GOP strategist running another likely presidential candidate’s outside group.

The question no one has an answer for yet is how a super PAC’s time and money can dovetail with the campaign’s efforts instead of duplicating them. Since such groups are barred from coordinating strategy with campaigns after the candidates declare, they may struggle to run complementary data or field operations. But campaign-finance watchdogs worry the rules will be flouted because there’s nobody to enforce them. “It’s open season,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, who notes that three of the six members of the Federal Election Commission—the agency in charge of overseeing political spending—view money as a form of speech and are ideologically opposed to reining it in. And while the Department of Justice can prosecute violations of campaign-finance law, experts predict they will be wary of doing so except in extreme cases.

Candidates will be able to send strategic cues in public statements that super PACs can pick up on. But campaign strategists say the anything-goes legal landscape could ultimately cause problems for the indiscreet. “Someone’s going to get popped,” one predicts. “The question is who and when.”

After his speech at Liberty, Cruz began a fundraising tour that would whisk him to meetings with New York financiers, Texas investors and other executives. Within 36 hours, he said he had raised more than $1 million for his actual campaign. The cash infusion was overdue: Cruz’s coffers are already dwarfed by those of rivals like Bush. As a federal officeholder, Cruz hasn’t had the same freedom to work with his super PAC.

But the outside group will be there to help him with his stated strategy—to win the nomination by mustering a grassroots army that mixes the Tea Party faithful with the social conservatives who dominate the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. And at the head of the brigade is an old pal: Cruz’s college roommate and debate partner David Panton, a Jamaican-born Atlanta private-equity executive who cut the super PAC its first $100,000 check last November. “I think he should be President,” Panton says. “It requires a lot of money to run a presidential campaign.”

Zack says the Senator can live on less cash than his rivals but insists that support will be there when he needs it. After all, Stand for Principle can get Cruz himself to juice fundraising by appearing at its events, as long as he does not ask for the money directly. Just imagine the possibilities.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller and Michael Scherer/Washington

Read next: 3 Things Ted Cruz Could Learn From Taylor Swift

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Military

Army to Try Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for Desertion and ‘Misbehavior’

Had no option if it wanted to maintain good order and discipline

The Army had little choice other than to charge Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with desertion. Otherwise, it faced an insurrection in the ranks, corrosion of discipline—or both.

“Bowe Bergdahl is a coward,” says Rob Kumpf, a one-time Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a refrain echoed by many active-duty troops, although Bergdahl has yet to tell his side of the story publicly. “While I strongly believe that we, as Americans, are duty bound to never leave one of our own behind,” Kumpf says, “I strongly hope that the government does what it needs to do to punish Mr. Bergdahl for his crimes.”

Bergdahl fell into Taliban hands in Afghanistan in 2009 after he reportedly became disillusioned with the war and walked away from his combat outpost. He was released after five years in captivity in a controversial exchange for five detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Army announced Wednesday that he is being charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. A preliminary hearing could lead to a full-fledged court martial.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, hailed the action. “My Army showed some backbone,” he says. “At least some of our generals have spines.”

The Army’s decision is gutsy, on two counts: first of all, it holds the White House, which celebrated his release with a Rose Garden ceremony featuring President Obama and Bergdahl’s parents, up to ridicule.

President Obama Makes A Statement On Release Of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
J.H. Owen – Pool / Getty ImagesPresident Obama hails Bergdahl’s return home last May with his parents, Jani and Bob.

Secondly, it means the Army could have to explain why it accepted Bergdahl as a soldier two years after he washed out of Coast Guard basic training, normally a red flag for recruiters.

While the desertion charge carries a maximum of five years imprisonment (only in a declared war can it carry the death penalty), the misbehavior charge could lead to a lifetime prison sentence. “The second charge—which is similar to ‘aiding and abetting’ in civilian parlance—suggests to me that we have strong evidence that Bergdahl may have given the Taliban important tactical information, or have otherwise been helpful to them,” Peters says.

While Bergdahl’s legal team didn’t respond directly to the charges in a statement it issued, it asked “that all Americans continue to withhold judgment until the facts of this case emerge.” Pentagon officials suggested a plea deal might avoid a public court-martial.

The Army faced grave consequences if it elected not to pursue the charges against Bergdahl. “The decision to court martial Bergdahl was probably the only one that the Army could make,” says Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel who served as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Any army has to have discipline at its core, and he is accused of deliberately leaving his post which endangered those soldiers who had to go look for him.”

Soldiers have alleged (although the Pentagon has said it can’t confirm) at least six U.S. troops died in clashes with the Taliban while hunting for Bergdahl after he went missing and was seized by the Taliban in Paktika province on June 30, 2009. “Bergdahl’s walking away was a large factor contributing to my son’s death,” Andy Andrews of Cameron, Texas, told TIME after Bergdahl’s release. His son, 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, was killed by an RPG September 4, 2009, while protecting a fellow soldier. They had been on a routine patrol near where Bergdahl vanished, and had been asking locals about him when they were attacked. “Sergeant Bergdahl is not a hero, and my son—who sacrificed himself to save others—was a hero,” Andrews said.

The Taliban released Bergdahl last May in a controversial trade for five Taliban detainees the U.S. was holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized Obama for not informing them of the trade before it happened. Soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit kept quiet about his disappearance until the White House ceremony heralding his return to the U.S.

“I think he abandoned his post while the other four soldiers were asleep,” Greg Leatherman, Bergdahl’s former squad leader, told TIME after Bergdahl returned to U.S. soil (he has spent much of his time since at a San Antonio, Texas, Army post, where his preliminary hearing will be held at a yet-to-be-specified date). “He was a loner, he didn’t like to share much with anyone. Read the Koran quite a bit, which I respected. I saw it as him trying to be a better soldier, learning more about the people we were going to work with,” Leatherman said. “Turns out he was preparing.”

Charles Jenkins’ fate illustrates what Bergdahl might face, if the pre-trial hearing announced Wednesday leads to his eventual conviction at court martial. Jenkins deserted his Army unit in South Korea in 1965 and lived in North Korea until 2004. He ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy. He received a dishonorable discharge, was stripped to the Army’s lowest rank, forfeited all pay and benefits, and was sentenced to 30 days in prison (he got out six days early for good behavior). He now lives in Japan.

But Jenkins was 64 when sentenced (Bergdahl turns 29 Saturday) and no one allegedly died trying to find Jenkins after he headed north through the Demilitarized Zone one freezing January night nearly 50 years ago.

The case also poses some risks for the Army itself. Bergdahl was discharged early from the Coast Guard, after only 26 days in boot camp in 2006, two years before he tried to enlist in the Army. The Coast Guard described the action as an “uncharacterized discharge,” which is typical for someone who leaves the service without completing basic training.

Generally such an event would have required a waiver from the Army before allowing such a prospective recruit to enlist. A wide variety of bars to enlistment—including legal problems and health concerns—require waivers because the Pentagon believes such recruits won’t do as well in uniform as those without such warning signs.

In 2008, the year Bergdahl joined the Army, the service granted waivers for about 20% of its recruits, usually for illicit drug use or other legal problems. Such waivers spiked as popular support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sagged and the Army found it more difficult to entice young Americans to enlist.

Read next: The Desertion Charge for Bowe Bergdahl Was Months in the Making

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina’s Anecdotal Campaign

Conservative Activists And Leaders Attend The Iowa Freedom Summit
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., during the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 24, 2015.

She doesn't have any legislative experience, so she talks about life experience instead

If you want to hear about health care, Carly Fiorina will talk about her fight with breast cancer. If you want to know about the economy, she’ll talk about working as a secretary in a small real-estate firm. If you want to learn about ISIS, she’ll even cite her degree in medieval history.

It seems that Fiorina has a personal anecdote for just about every policy question.

As she prepares to join the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has put together a well-polished set of personal stories for use on the stump. In recent weeks, she’s used the same anecdotes in speeches to very different audiences at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a conservative women’s organization and a group of investors.

To be fair, every presidential candidate relies on stock anecdotes about themselves. As he launched his campaign Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talked at length about his dad fleeing from Cuba and his wife selling bread in elementary school.

But as one of the only candidates with no prior political experience (former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is the other), Fiorina is unusually dependent on personal stories. Without a track record of votes, bills or executive actions to point to and, like many candidates at this stage, without a well-developed policy playbook, she has only her own history.

During an event on leadership and technology in Virginia Wednesday morning, she was asked by a member of the audience about innovation in government. Her response: health care.

“I’m a cancer survivor,” she said. “So I understand how important it is to make sure that people can get care despite pre-existing conditions or that people have access to quality affordable health care regardless of their circumstances.”

At a conference on women and leadership in Virginia Saturday, she talked about how social welfare programs have created a “web of dependence” for people who need help.

“Every one of us needs a helping hand sometimes,” she said. “When I battled cancer, I needed many helping hands. When my husband Frank and I lost our younger daughter Lori from the demons of addiction, we counted on the kindness of strangers.”

One of Fiorina’s favorite all-purpose anecdotes is the fact that she graduated from Stanford with a degree in medieval history and philosophy. It never fails to draw chuckles from the crowd when she brings it up, which she does, often.

She used it to knock President Obama’s comments on ISIS during her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): “I was fortunate enough to enroll in Stanford University where I would earn a degree in medieval history and philosophy. All dressed up and nowhere to go. That degree has come in handy recently since our President, he’s talking about the Crusades. Yes Mr. President, ISIS indeed wants to drive the whole world back to the Middle Ages, but the rest of us moved on about 800 years ago.”

Other times, she uses her liberal arts degree to talk about education policy. At the event Wednesday, Fiorina was asked about whether education should be more vocational. She said, “While I joke that my medieval history and philosophy degree prepared me not for the job market, I must tell you it did prepare me for life… I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life… I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art.”

Sometimes she segues her degree into a discussion of small businesses. After graduation, she felt unprepared for the job market, so she tried law school. She hated it, dropped out after one semester and got a job as a secretary to pay the bills. “I filed and answered the phones for a little nine-person real estate firm,” she said at CPAC. “Most Americans get their start the way I did: in a small business. The dry cleaners, the coffee shops, the hairdressers and the real estate firms of American Main Street create most of our new jobs and employ half of our people. So if we want more jobs, we need more small businesses.”

Anna Epstein, press secretary at Fiorina’s Unlocking Potential Project, says these stories are how Fiorina gets through to the audience.

“Carly has always related to people at a personal level,” Epstein said. “Like all of us, her experiences shape her world view. People relate to story telling more easily than they relate to numbers and figures.”

Fiorina hasn’t said exactly when she’ll announce a run for the White House, but whenever it is, you can be sure she’ll tell some of these anecdotes in her speech.

TIME Health Care

Obama on the Affordable Care Act’s Fifth Anniversary: ‘It’s Working’

White House Student Film Festival
Martin H. Simon—Pool/Corbis President Barack Obama hosts the second-annual White House Student Film Festival in the East Room of the White House, in Washington on March 20, 2015.

He challenged Republican critics who are campaigning on repealing the law.

President Obama had a simple message on the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act: It’s working.

Speaking in the Executive Office Building next to the White House, Obama argued that his signature health care law was “working better than many of us — including me — anticipated” at increasing health insurance rates and improving the quality of care.

“The bottom line is this for the American people: this law is saving money for families and for businesses,” he said. “This law is also saving lives, lives that touch all of us. It’s working despite countless attempts to repeal, undermine, defund and defame this law.”

In particular, Obama highlighted a government report that showed that fewer mistakes in hospitals saved the lives of 50,000 people between 2011 and 2013, which the White House partly attributed to initiatives to reduce accidental overdoses, bedsores and patient falls.

The remarks came just two days after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz promised to repeal “every word of Obamacare” in a speech launching his presidential campaign, the first Republican to join the 2016 race.

Obama took the opportunity to take a few shots at Republican critics of the law, joking that “death panels, doom, [and] a serious alternative from Republicans in Congress” have all failed to materialize and challenging candidates campaigning for repeal to explain how “kicking millions of families off their insurance” will strengthen the country.

“Making sure that the Affordable Care Act works as intended to not only deliver access to care but to improve the quality of care and the cost of care, thats something that requires us all to work together,” he said.

TIME

Morning Must Reads: March 25

Capitol
Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Germanwings Black Box Found

One of the flight recorders belonging to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 has been recovered, but French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve says it has been damaged. Investigators are hoping some data can be retrieved to shed light on the crash

Obama Slows Troop Drawdown

President Obama said the U.S. will keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan this year, as that country’s leaders had asked he slow the process

Tsarnaev Took ‘Intro to Ethics’

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on trial for the Boston Marathon bombing that claimed five lives and injured 280, had enrolled in an ethics class before the attack

U.S. Power Grid Under Near Continuous Attack

America’s power grid faces physical or online attacks approximately “once every four days,” according to a new investigation, threatening to plunge parts of the country into darkness. The report looked at public records, energy data and records from utilities

Yemen Leader Asks U.N. to Back Action Against Rebels

Yemen’s embattled President has asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military intervention in support of his government to oust Houthi Shi’ite rebels who control much of the disintegrating country’s north and are advancing south

Kelly Osbourne Admits ‘I Have the Cancer Gene’

Kelly Osbourne is one of the latest celebrities to speak out in support of Angelina Jolie’s decision to have her ovaries removed — and she shared that she has the cancer gene. “I agree with this 100%,” said the former Fashion Police host

Jon Hamm Completes Rehab BeforeMad Men Premiere

Like Don Draper, the main character he plays in the hit series Mad Men, Jon Hamm has been battling his own demons too. The 44-year-old actor recently completed a 30-day stint in a treatment center for alcohol addiction

Philadelphia Woman Accuses UberX Driver of Rape

A Philadelphia woman accused an UberX driver of rape in February, according to a report filed with the city’s police, marking the latest sexual-assault claim against the ride-sharing service. As the investigation continues, the driver’s access to Uber has been suspended

The X-Files Returns to Fox After 13 Years

The truth is right here, and it’s amazing: after 13 years off the air, The X-Files is officially returning to Fox as a limited series. Stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back on board, along with creator Chris Carter

Vin Diesel Predicts Furious 7 Will Win an Oscar

The Furious 7 star and producer set the bar high for the franchise’s latest installment in a new interview, saying “it will probably win Best Picture at the Oscars … unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever.” The new flick is out April 3

Don’t Buy Your Breast Milk Online, Scientists Say

Buying, selling and trading breast milk is a booming online business — and that’s a dangerous thing — according to a new study, which says there are no requirements to test sellers for diseases that may transmit by drinking the milk, like HIV and hepatitis B and C

Yemeni President Flees Rebels

Yemen’s embattled president fled his Aden home Wednesday for an undisclosed location as Shiite rebels neared his last refuge, according to reports. The advance of the rebels, known as Houthis, threatens to plunge the Arab world’s poorest country into a civil war

Get TIME’s The Brief e-mail every morning in your inbox

TIME Campaign Finance

Police Advocacy Group Leaves Few Fingerprints

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America has no known office. The group’s address leads instead to “suite 113” inside this shipping supply store in Lake Ridge, Virginia. Rachel Baye/Center for Public Integrity
Rachel Baye — Center for Public Integrity The Law Enforcement Alliance of America has no known office. The group’s address leads instead to “suite 113” inside this shipping supply store in Lake Ridge, Virginia. Rachel Baye/Center for Public Integrity

Wedged between a nail salon and a pizza shop in a strip mall about 25 miles south of Washington, D.C., is a postal supply store where a small brass mailbox sits stuffed with unopened envelopes.

It’s the unlikely home of one of the country’s most mysterious political hit squads.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America once had offices in a nearby office park, but it abandoned them more than a year ago. It hasn’t filed required IRS reports in two years, and its leaders, once visible on television and in congressional hearings, have all but vanished.

But the nonprofit that calls itself “the nation’s largest coalition of law enforcement professionals, crime victims and concerned citizens” still has teeth. It has succeeded in helping knock out 12 state-level candidates in 14 years, including an Arkansas judicial candidate last year. In doing so, the group helped launch the current governors of Texas and Nevada to their stepping-stone positions as state attorneys general.

The LEAA uses brute tactics — parachuting into otherwise small-dollar races close to the end and buying up TV ads that accuse candidates of siding with “baby killers” and sexual predators.

“They can put out some sort of horrible attack ad on any judges that they want and really influence an election with a fairly small amount of money,” former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz said. “They’re buying seats on supreme courts in states all around the country.”

Diaz knows. He’s among those who have been pushed out of office after being targeted by the LEAA, which spent about $660,000 in the last two weeks of his 2008 campaign running ads linking him to rapists and murderers.

“When a 6-month-old child was raped and murdered, Supreme Court Justice Diaz was the only one voting for the child’s killer,” the ad’s two announcers said. “An elderly woman kidnapped, beaten and raped: Diaz, the only one voting for the rapist.”

How the LEAA pays for the campaigns is a mystery that political opponents, state officials and advocacy groups have fought unsuccessfully for years to unravel. The group, which has ties to the National Rifle Association but no public connections to official law enforcement agencies, has repeatedly gone to court to fend off such efforts. A dispute over whether the group violated Texas campaign laws is expected to wrap up this month, but the group’s donor list has so far remained a closely guarded secret.

The LEAA and its current leader, Chief Operating Officer Ted Deeds, did not respond to repeated calls and emails. Lawyers representing the group said they were not authorized to speak on its behalf, and the LEAA’s accountant referred questions back to the group. In the past, its leaders have argued that its anonymously funded activities are protected under the right to free speech.

The group is an extreme example of a growing cadre of political organizations — from the conservative Crossroads GPS to the environmental advocate League of Conservation Voters — that insert themselves into elections, flood the airwaves with attack ads and often tip the scales in favor of the candidate they prefer. All the while, voters have no idea who is behind the effort and what their motives are because of a gap in disclosure laws.

The LEAA is among the most mysterious and successful, coming into races like a stealth assassin, then all but disappearing when the race ends.

In the LEAA’s sights

Two weeks before last year’s Arkansas Supreme Court election, the LEAA swooped in to take out a trial attorney it didn’t like.

“Tim Cullen worked to throw out the sentence of a repeat sexual predator, arguing that child pornography was a victimless crime,” said the voiceover in one ad. “Victimless? Tell that to the thousands of victims robbed of their childhoods and left with permanent psychological and physical scars.”

Cullen responded, saying the ad misrepresented his argument. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org, which monitors the truthfulness of political messages, mostly agreed, calling the LEAA’s ad “beyond the pale.”

The group spent at least $320,000 airing the attack ads, as well as some supporting Cullen’s opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Robin Wynne, according to local TV station records. It was the first time a group unconnected to candidates or political parties bought ads in an Arkansas court race.

Wynne, who denied any involvement with the ads, won by a 4-percentage-point margin.

The ads not only contributed to Cullen’s loss, they also led him to give up politics, even though his supporters want him to run again.

“Because I still do not know their motives or the source of their funding, I am concerned that they (or whoever is behind them) might again hijack any future race if I was a candidate,” Cullen said in an email.

A bill that would have required groups like the LEAA to reveal their donors failed in the Arkansas House this week, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

The Arkansas race was simply the latest in a string of judicial elections in which the LEAA helped determine the winners.

Two years before, the group spent at least $450,000 airing ads that criticized losing Mississippi Supreme Court candidate Flip Phillips. And in 2010, the LEAA spent $800,000 airing ads that attacked Michigan Judge Denise Langford Morris, who subsequently lost her campaign for state supreme court, according to Justice at Stake, an advocacy group critical of judicial elections.

In the Diaz case, Mississippi’s Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention condemned the ads, causing Comcast to pull them from its stations, according to Mississippi’s The Clarion-Ledger. Still, he lost by 16 percentage points, despite the $100,000 he estimated his campaign spent fighting back.

The group also jumped into races for at least two more supreme court justices, seven attorneys general, two state legislators, plus four congressional races. Each time, the LEAA made a name for itself with harsh attack ads, and almost every time, its candidate won.

Taking aim at gun control

The LEAA was created by the National Rifle Association in 1991 to represent pro-gun police officers willing to defend their right to bear arms, according to Leroy Pyle, an 18-year veteran of the San Jose, California, police department, whom the NRA tapped to launch the group.

At its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the group had about eight employees, two former staffers recalled.

Today the group describes itself as a coalition of thousands of dues-paying law enforcement professionals around the country. The number of members is not publicly verifiable.

“LEAA was established early to give a voice to cops so that when the police chiefs would show up and have a press conference and say, ‘Well, this is what cops think,’ that the public at least have some indication that this is not what all cops think,” said former employee David Bufkin, who now owns a communications firm outside of Washington, D.C.

However, the International Union of Police Associations and the Fraternal Order of Police, two major national police labor groups, disavow any link between the LEAA and their organizations.

“If we have ever agreed with them, it’s been totally coincidental,” said FOP spokesman Jim Pasco.

Officials speaking on behalf of state chapters of the FOP have used even stronger language to distance themselves from the LEAA.

For example, when the LEAA ran ads criticizing now-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in her 2002 race, the state branch of the FOP said it was an “insult for this group to pretend to represent police when they promote policies that would endanger the lives of law enforcement officers,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

Changing tactics with changing leaders

For most of its early existence, LEAA staff regularly lobbied Congress and state legislatures, usually opposing measures that would restrict gun ownership.

Jim Fotis, the group’s full-time executive director from about 1993 until 2006 and a member of the board of directors until 2010, was a regular presence on Capitol Hill. A former cop in Lynbrook, New York, for 14 years, he also represented the group in “hundreds of TV and radio programs as a commentator on sensitive issues ranging from gun control to international terrorism,” according to his LinkedIn profile.

Fotis could not be reached for comment.

The LEAA’s focus shifted more toward elections in the 2000s, and its newest leader, Deeds, has kept a much lower profile. He also has a tenuous connection to law enforcement.

The 51-year-old worked as a corrections officer for three months in 1984 in the Arlington County Sheriff’s Department and for seven months in 1986 for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department, both in Virginia. He was fired from both jobs, according to county personnel records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. The Virginia Employment Commission later found no evidence to show misconduct connected with his work in Arlington County, but he was not reinstated.

Guns and money

In its early years, the LEAA would not have survived without the NRA, according to Stephen Chand, the group’s legislative director for a few years in the mid-1990s.

“There were other gun groups that were involved, other unions that were involved, but the close tie was really the NRA,” Chand said. “Every time it looked like we were going belly up in the first couple of years, they came in to help float the bills.”

Money was tight enough that the group couldn’t do much, especially when it came to influencing elections, Chand said.

“I remember one year we were handing out $50 to some candidates — the best we could come up with,” he said.

After Chand left in the late 1990s, he was surprised to see the LEAA spending vastly larger sums on state races.

The NRA gave the group at least $2 million over seven years, ending with a grant of $180,000 in 2010, according to the NRA’s tax documents. Since then, the NRA’s tax filings don’t show money going to the LEAA. The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the financial links, then-LEAA spokesman Kevin Watson denied his group was a front for the NRA in a 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story.

“There are a great chunk of issues that have nothing to do with the NRA,” he said.

Chand said the LEAA also had close ties to Americans for Tax Reform, the nonprofit run by NRA board member Grover Norquist, who is known for seeking public pledges from elected officials to not raise taxes.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also collaborated with the LEAA to influence the 2001 Virginia attorney general’s race, according to a memo the Center for Public Integrity obtained from a meeting between LEAA staff and its accountant.

Representatives of Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not respond to questions about whether they helped to fund the group’s efforts.

Operating in secrecy

It’s hard to know whether the LEAA still has links to such groups because it conducts business in near-complete secrecy.

The organization has no known office, having left just a box of posters and pile of unopened mail at the now-vacant space it listed on its last tax form. The LEAA’s current address leads instead to the mailbox in the Lake Ridge, Virginia, postal supply store.

The IRS said the LEAA has not filed mandatory forms with the federal tax agency since the ones that covered 2011 — something that could carry a fine of up to $50,000. The group also failed to release its tax records in response to the Center for Public Integrity’s requests, as required by law.

Even if the LEAA had filed the required documents, they likely wouldn’t have revealed much. Federal law doesn’t require a nonprofit like the LEAA, which is regulated under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. Tax Code, to reveal the names of donors publicly or to offer many details about how it spends money.

Known as “social welfare organizations,” these nonprofits have become frequent vehicles for political activity by groups whose donors don’t want their names revealed. Unlike candidates, such nonprofits can raise unlimited amounts of money from unions and corporations, plus spend unlimited amounts.

In down-ballot races like those for state supreme court, the secrecy of such nonprofits is particularly problematic, because the groups may be the only ones offering information about the candidates, according to Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election law.

“People typically aren’t as ill-informed about who’s running for president or governor or even secretary of state as they are about judicial races,” Levinson said. “A few well-placed radio or TV ads can make a big difference because that can be the only thing that people remember about the candidate.” here for more stories in this blog

Fighting in court

The LEAA has repeatedly fought efforts by state officials and opponents to require it to reveal its donors.

After the group failed to register as a political committee in Pennsylvania in 2001, a judge there ordered the LEAA to remove from the air ads attacking state supreme court candidate Kate Ford Elliott. Registering would have required revealing details about donors and spending.

In response, Deeds repeated an argument the LEAA has used frequently: that the First Amendment protects the group’s right to spend money on ads without revealing its donors.

Elliott lost in the end anyway, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shifted to Republican control.

Three years later, two Texas candidates sued after claiming the LEAA spent more than $1 million opposing their 2002 candidacies. The LEAA had aired ads saying Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, who was running for attorney general, “made millions suing doctors, hospitals and small businesses, hurting families and driving up the cost of health care.”

And less than a week before the election, the LEAA accused Democratic state house candidate Mike Head of being on the side of “convicted baby killers” via postcards sent throughout his district.

“What they were doing was just ethically and morally wrong,” Head said. “It misrepresented what I do, and when it hits every mailbox — your friends, family, church members, your children’s [friends’] parents — it certainly will give you pause before you put yourself out there to do that again.”

The LEAA argued that its right not to reveal donors’ identities is protected under the group’s right to free speech.

The legal fight dragged on for more than a decade. The two Democrats reached a settlement agreement with the LEAA in late February 2015, their attorney told the court, and the case is expected to be dismissed this week. Watson declined to comment, and the attorney for both Watson and Head did not return calls.

Yet the effect of the election cannot be undone. Former state Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott beat Watson to become the attorney general. Today, Abbott, a Republican, is the governor of Texas.

Alan Suderman contributed to this story.

This piece comes from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization. To follow the Center’s investigations into state government and politics, go here or follow them on Twitter.

TIME politics

San Francisco Lawmakers Propose Tougher Restrictions on Airbnb Rentals

Airbnb
Airbnb

The proposal would take a trailblazing regulation measure passed last year and make it more restrictive

At a meeting of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, a local lawmaker returned to an issue that sparked long and contentious hearings in 2014: regulation of the city’s short-term rentals facilitated by Airbnb and similar companies.

“This law is a mess,” David Campos, one of the 11 board members, said of a measure passed last year that legalized short-term rentals. “It’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up. And we need to clean it up as soon as possible.”

Campos introduced legislation that would place stricter limitations on how often people can rent out rooms or homes, putting a “hard cap” of 90 days on every property, regardless of whether the host is present. It would also require companies such as Airbnb to share data about rentals, ban rentals in certain neighborhoods that have been zoned for no commercial use and give disturbed neighbors—like ones living next door to people who rent out units illegally—the right to sue for damages.

A spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement to TIME that the new proposal is just creating tension over an issue that was settled in 2014.

“Elected officials spent three years debating all aspects of this issue before passing comprehensive legislation, but some folks still don’t think you should be able to occasionally share the home in which you live,” said Christopher Nulty. “We should all be striving to make the law work but these ad hoc rules and this new bill just make things more confusing.”

Campos’ measure has been co-sponsored by two other members of the board.

Under the law passed last year, residents in San Francisco are allowed to rent out their properties an unlimited amount of days if the host is present, while there is a 90-day cap on un-hosted rentals. The different limits were aimed at maximizing the economic potential for residents who depend on sites like Airbnb for income, while making it impossible for landlords to put rental units on those sites full-time. Before the law passed, all short-term rentals were technically illegal; rentals shorter than 30 days were banned.

MORE: 5 Things You Never Knew About the Sharing Economy

The problem, Campos says, is that the city planning commission, which is charged with enforcing the law, says there’s no method of determining when hosts are at home sleeping in their own beds, meaning they cannot monitor whether people are respecting the limits. Campos called the law a “paper tiger” that is “unenforceable” because it has no teeth.

Local lawmakers have pushed for limits on short-term rentals to make sure the sharing economy doesn’t cannibalize existing housing stock. “The concern is you take your unit off the market,” says Supervisor Jane Kim, who supports a 90-day cap.

In recent years, San Francisco has been in the midst of a housing crisis, with the amount of people wanting to live in the city exceeding the apartments that are available—which has sent rental prices skyrocketing. The law was partly aimed at stopping landlords from taking much-needed units off the market because renting them out every night on sites like Airbnb was more valuable than collecting a monthly check. It also legitimized a business popular with tourists and locals.

Kim points out that 90 days per year breaks down to about a week per month, or could be the length of a summer when a college student is out of town. It’s sufficient for what one might consider “regular” hosts who use Airbnb, she says. “If you’re doing more than 90 days, you’re running a business,” she says. Kim believes that people in that camp should apply for a bed-and-breakfast license, which requires hosts to meet more requirements like installing exit signs.

With the aim of making oversight more feasible, Campos’ proposal would require platforms like Airbnb to give the city data about how often properties are being rented through their sites. “Without that data, there’s simply no way of knowing,” Campos says. He adds that Airbnb has responded to previous requests for such data by demanding the city subpoena them and notes that Airbnb has fought such subpoenas in states like New York.

Under the current law, which went into effect in February, all hosts must register with the city before listing a property on a site like Airbnb. Campos says that as of two weeks ago only a few dozen residents have registered, while there are “thousands” of rooms and units being listed on short-term rental sites. In an attempt to incentivize compliance with the law, the proposal would also fine hosting platforms that list unregistered units in San Francisco to the tune of $1,000 per day.

“All of us support short-term rentals,” Campos said of the board members during Tuesday’s meeting. “We know that short-term rentals are part of San Francisco, that they are here to stay … That said, I think that those of us that have been talking about this believe there should be reasonable, fair regulation of this industry,” he continued. “The law that was passed last year does not constitute what we would like to see.”

Read next: Baby, You Can Drive My Car, and do My Errands, and Rent My Stuff…

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com