Look-Alike Sites Funnel Big Money to Mystery PAC

"That's pretty sophisticated phishing," he said. "It looks official. It looks as good as anything .... I'm glad I got my money back."

CAPE PAC's network of microsites does not appear to break election law; the group discloses itself as the operator on every page. But "just because it's legal doesn't make it right," said Pasi.

The group first made waves in March, when it bought search ads for GOP Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, had pledged to swear off outside advertising. Warren said the CAPE PAC ads violated their agreement and Brown paid a fine for not honoring the pledge.

CAPE PAC has been on the radar of Boehner's political operation, as well. "Our campaign continues to monitor this situation, and we're concerned that some donors are finding CAPE PAC's site very confusing," said Boehner spokesman Cory Fritz. He urged donors to call a campaign before making online contributions.

CAPE PAC's biggest expenditure has been on Google ads promoting candidates. After search ads, the most money went to a pair of Delaware-incorporated companies with almost no public profile -- both of which got money from CAPE PAC on June 30 and then registered domain names 10 days later.

A $178,200 payment went to Fly-Ur-Flag for "media and advertisements." It is not clear who operates the firm, or who its other clients of any kind are. The company received the CAPE PAC payment on June 30 and registered its website domain -- flyurflag.biz -- on July 9. The bare-bones website has no contact information and lists no staff.

"We are currently managing over 30 campaigns across the United States of America for the 2012 election cycle," the site claims.

CAPE PAC lists 33 candidates it supports.

Another $85,000 went to GoMobile Technology. Although the domain for that firm -- gomobiletech.net -- is now registered, no website has been launched.

No other federal candidate or committee has hired either Fly-Ur-Flag or GoMobile Technology this election cycle, according to FEC records. In his statement, Loyd said that, "Aside from our vendor agreements, none of the members of CAPE PAC have any relationship with these vendors."

Loyd is also CEO of a digital marketing firm, Paperleaf Media, according to his LinkedIn profile. The company touts its expertise "in understanding were [sic] to advertise to drive traffic that will convert into new customers."

Through June 30, the most recent data available, CAPE PAC has paid Loyd more than $2,300 in "director fees."

It has also paid $15,000 to the D.C. area public-relations firm of Kirsten Fedewa. Fedewa returned a message left for CAPE PAC and said that she would pass questions on to Loyd or Nicholas Spears, who has been paid about $800 as a CAPE PAC director. Instead, CAPE PAC emailed Loyd's written statement. Fedewa declined to answer questions in a follow-up call, saying she is a consultant, not a spokeswoman for the group.

GOP activist Sarah Bowman of Iowa has also received more than $4,100 for "public-relations" services.

CAPE PAC has a strong Web presence, with nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter and 50,000 on Facebook. In a press release touting its work for Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is running for Senate, CAPE PAC claimed to have promoted a #VoteFlake hashtag on Twitter, posted a YouTube ad, and placed a "polling-place locator" on its website. The YouTube video had only 170 views as of the end of August; no one other than CAPE PAC's Twitter account appears to have used the #VoteFlake tag.

"We are troubled with its deceptive website and collection of donations," Flake spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

To aid Allen West, CAPE PAC stated in a July press release that it "secured airtime" that month. But a veteran media buyer and West's campaign could find no record of such an ad airing on TV.

For donors such as Jesse Knight of Salt Lake City, who contributed $250 to CAPE PAC, the biggest question is what is happening with his money.

"I thought I was donating it to Romney," Knight said. "That's what they portrayed." Knight accidentally clicked "donate" multiple times. CAPE PAC officials were accommodating in returning his duplicative donations, he said.

But it wasn't until a reporter contacted him that he learned he hadn't contributed to Romney at all. "I want 100 percent going to the guy I'm voting for," Knight said.

Presented by

Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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