Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in March 2012.

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in March 2012. Credit: Getty Images / AFP / AP

WASHINGTON -- In the last election, Long Island hedge fund manager Robert Mercer created a super PAC he called Concerned Taxpayers of America and gave it $600,000 to run TV ads attacking a Democratic congressman in Oregon.

Last year, Mercer donated $1 million to Restore Our Future, a super PAC backing Republican Mitt Romney, and $100,000 to the anti-tax PAC, Club for Growth, for ads this year.

Mercer was allowed to make the $1.7 million in donations by landmark court rulings in 2010 that altered the political landscape by scrapping limits on contributions and spawned a boom in the controversial super PAC groups.

No limit on funding

Unlike campaign committees, these political action committees can accept unlimited amounts of money from almost anyone -- citizens, corporations and unions -- to run ads independent of campaigns to elect or defeat candidates for president or Congress.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), other lawmakers and open-government advocates contend that the unlimited flow of money in politics distorts elections and invites fraud.

They say super PACs are acting like arms of presidential campaigns rather than the independent voices they were intended to be, and have roiled and prolonged the GOP primary race.

"I don't like the idea of democracy being bought by someone with the biggest checkbook. That's a plutocracy," said David Vance of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates limits on campaign money.

But Allison Hayward of the Center for Competitive Politics, which backs the rulings, said: "It's about free speech. The notion that something bad is happening in the body politic is way overblown."

Multiplying by addition

In 2010, the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United ruling, said corporations and unions had First Amendment rights to spend freely on independent ads for or against candidates. And a federal circuit court, in its Speech Now ruling, lifted donation limits to groups running those ads.

Since then, super PACs have multiplied from 84 groups that raised $85 million in 2010 to 351 that raised $130 million so far this year, said the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.

Super PACs are getting contributions from a relatively few donors, almost all of them wealthy people, corporations and unions, records show.

Seven wealthy men, including Mercer, are responsible for more than $3 million donated by Long Island residents to super PACs in the past year, records show. Other big donors also sent in checks from the Island but vote elsewhere.

All seven share characteristics: They're rich, philanthropic and politically active. Over the past 15 years, five of them gave heavily to Republicans and two to Democrats.

Two are in the top 10 super PAC donors nationally, with contributions of at least $1 million to Romney's super PAC.

Mercer, 65, of St. James, co-director of Renaissance Technologies, gave $1 million, and Julian Robertson, 79, of Locust Valley, chairman of Tiger Management, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, gave $1.25 million.

Their super PAC donations alone nearly match the amounts they gave to candidates and party committees combined over the past 15 years, records show.

Mercer did not respond to requests for comment. Robertson aide Fraser Seitel said, "He really does believe in Mitt Romney, and it's his own money."

James Simons, 73, of Setauket, who is Renaissance Technologies' chairman and Mercer's mentor, gave $500,000 to Majority PAC, which aims to preserve Democrats' Senate majority. Simons, who like Mercer would not comment, also founded and runs Euclidian Capital.

The small world of the big givers can be seen in Restore Our Future, the nation's largest super PAC with $36.7 million so far. Most of that came from 64 corporations ($8.7 million) and 100 donors ($25.4 million).

Independence questioned

Super PACs back each of the four GOP hopefuls, but critics say they are not totally independent. They're run by close former aides to the candidates, and Restore Our Future shares office space and consultants with Romney's campaign.

The flow of money has even led President Barack Obama to reverse his ban on donations to a group, Priorities USA Action, supporting him.

Super PACs also can be an intimidating force in local races.

Mercer created Concerned Taxpayers of America with a Maryland builder in 2010. The builder spent $300,000 to run ads against a Maryland congressman and Mercer invested $600,000 in ads against Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.).

DeFazio believes he was targeted because he supports taxes on hedge funds. He won, but his margin shrank to 56 percent from 82 percent in 2008.

Not all donors are comfortable with super PACs.

Michael Ashner, 59, of Oyster Bay, is chief executive of Winthrop Realty Trust. In 2000 and 2008, he supported McCain, a key sponsor of campaign finance laws to limit money in politics.

Last year, Ashner gave $30,000 to Restore Our Future. Yet he said he'd rather see laws allow only direct contributions to campaigns, but with higher limits. "I'm troubled by the system as it exists," he said. "If I had my druthers, I would get rid of all the PACs."

Latest videos