34N22? NNH? Super PACs with cryptic names raise transparency concerns

PACs that use obscure names make it hard to trace their funding, say experts.

December 7, 2021, 5:01 AM

With the critical 2022 midterm election looming, elections experts say the already opaque world of campaign fundraising is becoming even more murky, as a number of political groups have started registering under cryptic and hard-to-trace names.

"When super PACs name themselves using simply an assortment of letters and numbers, it's harder for people to understand the super PAC's ideological leanings without additional digging," said Michael Beckel, research director with bipartisan political reform group Issue One.

"Few people will take the time to research the name of a super PAC after seeing its ads -- if they can ever remember the right mix of letters and numbers the super PAC is using as its name," Beckel said.

One recent example is the fundraising organization known as "34N22." Surfacing two months ago, the cryptically named group registered with the Federal Election Commission as a super PAC, also known as an independent expenditure-only political action committee, which can accept an unlimited amount money from donors and spend an unlimited amount to support candidates -- as long as it's independent from the candidates themselves. Regular PACs, in contrast, are limited by a $5,000 limit per year per donor, and can make direct contributions to candidates up to $5,000 per candidate.

The new 34N22 super PAC offered the first clues to its actual purpose a few days ago when it announced and reported to the FEC that it would be spending $81,000 for an online ad campaign in support of former NFL player Herschel Walker's bid against Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. A spokesperson for 34N22 told ABC News that the group's name is "pretty straightforward," saying "34 was Herschel Walker's number at the University of Georgia -- and the election is in 2022."

Little else is known about 34N22, including who is bankrolling it. Election rules provide less frequent filing deadlines for super PACs' donor disclosures during off-election years. A press release from 34N22 names as its spokesperson Stephen Lawson, a former adviser to former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was unseated by Warnock earlier this year. The group's FEC filing lists 34N22's treasurer as Charles Gantt, who has been linked to multiple other GOP political committees.

34N22 is just the latest example of a new super PAC with an obscure name. Other groups this election cycle are using such names as NNH PAC, NJH PAC, NTC PAC, TAS PAC, GMI Inc and KSL Inc -- odd monikers that, as campaigns heat up, may lead to TV ads ending with uninformative or confusing taglines regarding who they're "paid for by."

There were signs of this trend toward obscurity during the 2020 election cycle. The two Georgia Senate contests between Loeffler and Warnock and between incumbent GOP Sen. David Perdue and challenger Jon Ossoff were the target of an ad blitz worth tens of thousands of dollars by a conservative group named C3 PAC. Last year in Maine, GOP Sen. Susan Collins' reelection bid was supported by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign from an organization called 1820 PAC. And Gantt was the treasurer for another group that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting various GOP congressional candidates under the name SG PAC.

Under federal law, there are very few restrictions on how a political committee should be named, other than that an outside political group that is not a candidate's authorized campaign committee cannot use a candidate's name in its official name.

Brendan Fischer, the federal reforms director of the good-government group Campaign Legal Center, said that "plenty of PACs use innocuous or generic names" and that obscure names made up of initials are "not necessarily too concerning" as long as "the ad disclaimers are clear and accurate."

PHOTO: Voters wait outside the Lee Hill polling location on Election Day in Spotsylvania, Va., Nov. 3, 2020.
Voters wait outside the Lee Hill polling location on Election Day in Spotsylvania, Va., Nov. 3, 2020.
Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP

"What's most important is that a voter can identify the PAC running a particular ad, and then be able to use FEC records to figure out where the PAC's money is coming from and where it is going," Fischer said, referring to both regular PACs and super PACs.

That, however, isn't always possible.

Earlier this year, three super PACs were established under the similarly obscure names of NNH, NTC and NJH, all registered by a South Carolina-based super PAC treasurer named Gabrielle D'Alemberte. Online, each group's FEC statement of organization links to the group's website, which reveals that they are campaigns against GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, and potential 2024 GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley -- with the initials representing Never Tom Cotton, Never Josh Hawley and Never Nikki Haley.

None of the three super PACs have reported any political activities so far, but NNH and NJH's websites feature videos attacking Haley and Hawley, with disclaimers that the videos were paid for by Never Nikki Haley LLC and Never Josh Hawley LLC. Each group's website also includes a disclaimer that it was paid for by Never Nikki Haley LLC, Never Josh Hawley LLC and Never Tom Cotton LLC, respectively. This means that voters who come across these videos and websites won't be able to easily find their FEC disclosure filings -- because with the FEC, the groups are registered as NNH, NJH and NTC.

Fischer said the groups' websites "are failing to comply with legal disclaimer requirements."

"This isn't just a matter of semantics," Fischer said. "NNH PAC's failure to include accurate 'paid for by' disclaimers deprives voters of their ability to identify who is behind the PAC. A voter who wants more information about the PAC and searches the FEC website for the name on the disclaimer, 'Never Nikki Haley, LLC,' will find nothing."

The three groups are "partners" of an umbrella group called the NUMQUAM Project, which, according to its website, is "dedicated to defeating all Trump Republicans and any politicians who were involved with, participated in, or supported the January 6, 2021 insurrectionist attack on the United States Capitol." The name "NUMQUAM" appears to be a reference to Latin phrase "numquam iterum," which means "never again."

An ABC News review of the FEC database was unable to trace back the name "NUMQUAM Project" to any FEC disclosure filing.

The three super PACs and their treasurer D'Alemberte did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.