By Roger Sollenberger, Salon
A super PAC that claims to advocate for wounded veterans raised millions of dollars this year, but spent only $18,000 of it on political activity. The rest of the money was spun off to administrative and marketing services, including to three companies belonging to one person — a former long-shot Democratic congressional candidate, self-published author, certified nutrition-label reader and serial hustler in East Tennessee named Alan Bohms.
The organization, called American Wounded Veterans PAC, bears hallmarks of what campaign finance watchdogs call a “scam PAC” — a for-profit fundraising vehicle that professes to advocate for a cause but makes no clear promise on how it will spend the money raised, and in reality intends to keep most of it, or pay it out to affiliated contractors.
Bohms, along with his lawyer, Matthew Fisher, appears to be at the center of a sprawling, intertwined network of super PAC and nonprofit scammers first revealed in 2019 in a series of exposés about a group called Heroes United PAC.
Bohms, however, has never had his name on a PAC and was never named in those stories. Instead he feeds off of the PACs, one operator in a large network of shadowy marketing companies where affiliated PACs shuttle almost all of the funds they raise.
Following the public exposure and an out-of-court settlement with Montgomery County, Maryland, that network appears to have simply shuttered its old PACs and started afresh in early 2020.
A Salon investigation indicates that Bohms and Fisher remained central figures in this venture. The network itself seems to have stayed intact, as has the larger, even more mysterious network of untraceable telemarketing companies above them that take an even larger cut.
Tens of millions
Over the last three years, that larger network has pulled in tens of millions of dollars for the PACs in the name of charitable causes. But the groups plowed almost all of their millions into fundraising and marketing companies, including paying sham companies run by people in their own network.
“Scam PACs” exploit an ill-defined space between federal campaign finance and state charity laws: Political action committees (PACs) operate outside the laws that regulate charities — for example, officially registering with state governments, publicly disclosing their executives, reporting their expenses and so on.
Scam PACs represent “a way for them to get around the charity laws — that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Stuart Discount, chief executive of the Professional Association for Customer Engagement, a trade association for direct marketers, told Reuters for a special report on scam PACs published last January, which touched on the Heroes United scheme.
But scam PACs don’t behave like normal political action committees, either. Instead of political advocacy focused on specific issues or an ideological agenda, they solicit money for supposedly charitable causes — children in poverty, cancer victims, law enforcement groups, firefighters, wounded soldiers and the like — and tell donors, often in passing, that part of their efforts involve lobbying politicians about the cause.
None of the PACs mentioned in this story appear to have registered as lobbying organizations with the federal government.
Because super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money with little regulatory oversight, scams can turn tidy profits. In 2018, federal prosecutors indicted two brothers who operated a network of right-wing scam PACs with names like Americans for Law Enforcement PAC, Life and Liberty PAC and Republican Majority Campaign PAC, which over the course of 10 years had bilked donors out of $50 million.
That indictment alleged that “less than 1% of all donor money to the PACs was spent on political contributions.” The rest went to fundraising efforts and into the two men’s pockets, resulting in a $1.2 million fine.
That appears similar and perhaps smaller in scale to United Heroes and the larger network that Bohms, Fisher and their associates are in, which netted tens of millions of dollars this year alone.
American Wounded Veterans, for example, raised $2.5 million from donors in 2020, according to its latest Federal Election Commission filing. But the group spent just 0.7% of those funds on what qualifies as legitimate political activity, in the FEC’s eyes: a single $18,000 payment this June for ads to support Rep. Charlie Crist, a Florida Democrat.
On its website, American Wounded Veterans PAC says that its mission is “to transform our nation’s capital by electing a new generation of leaders who will put people over politics.” Crist would not appear to fit the mission: He is in no sense a member of a “new generation,” but an old hand, a 64-year-old career politician and former Florida governor whose committee assignments in the House have nothing to do with veterans affairs.
While it appears impossible to trace the PAC — the phone number and address that its current treasurer, Michael Simpson, reported to the FEC are both virtual — it’s possible to trace that ad payment. That money went into the pocket of the aforementioned Alan Bohms, a Knoxville-area resident with a colorful history and an apparently diverse set of interests, who was himself implicated in a number of multimillion-dollar scam PAC schemes last year.
One of those groups had a name strikingly similar to American Wounded Veterans: The American Coalition for Injured Veterans, which paid vast sums to Bohms’ former company, Tampa Media Marketing.
Heros United PAC
Heroes United PAC spent a total of more than $462,000 on Tampa Media’s services between 2018 and February 2020, FEC records show. During that same time frame, the PAC spent only $147,000 on legitimate political activity. That’s just one-third of what Bohms’ company made in that time, and a mere 0.1% of the group’s total fundraising.
This year, Bohms started fresh, ditching Tampa Media and creating a new company with a generic, essentially invisible moniker: “Campaign Marketing Inc.” That company was the eventual recipient of the $18,000 ad buy from the American Wounded Veterans PAC — which itself had also been created in January.
That wasn’t all Bohms earned from American Wounded Veterans’ innumerable small donors — Campaign Marketing Inc. performed a number of other services for the PAC this year, apparently $129,000 worth.
Additionally, Bohms had registered Campaign Marketing Inc. to do business under two other, equally generic aliases — Prestige Tax & Payroll and Insight Data Management — both of which took payments from American Wounded Veterans.
All told, Bohms took in $173,000 for his services through those companies just this year — all purportedly to run some ads for an unopposed Florida congressman two months before a canceled primary.
No other political group reported paying any of those three companies.
American Wounded Veterans PAC
Still, American Wounded Veterans PAC has about $2.3 million in 2020 fundraising to account for. Where did it come from? Almost all of the PAC’s receipts are “unitemized,” meaning the money came in the form of contributions of $200 or less, so the PAC does not have to disclose those donors. (A great many scam PAC donors are elderly people who quite likely believe they are giving to legitimate charities.)
Campaign finance and government ethics law expert Brett Kappel told Salon this fits the scam PAC pattern.
“One of the more pernicious effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has been an explosion in the number of super PAC scams,” Kappel said. “Since super PACs can solicit and accept contributions in unlimited amounts, they have become a favorite vehicle for the unscrupulous — many of whom previously ran charity scams.”
“Fortunately, the Justice Department has responded to the proliferation of super PAC scams and has successfully prosecuted many scam PAC operators for mail and wire fraud over the past few years,” Kappel added.
And where did the money go?
That ostensibly legitimate $18,000 expense appears dubious on a closer look. This year Crist ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 13th congressional district, which was originally scheduled for August but ultimately canceled.
It is unclear why Campaign Marketing Inc, spent $18,000 on advertising to support Crist in June. Bohms would not answer that question — although he said he formerly lived in Crist’s district, in and around St. Petersburg, Florida.
It is also unclear how Crist feels about a sketchy newcomer PAC using his campaign as a vehicle to raise millions of dollars in the name of wounded U.S. troops. His campaign did not reply to Salon‘s detailed questions about the PAC, the ads or Bohms.
Reached for comment, Bohms denied he had any direct connection to American Wounded Veterans PAC, though he did say that the group paid him to “do some work.”
“I don’t care to take part in your article,” he said, then hung up.
While Bohms appears to have made good money from American Wounded Veterans, the overwhelming majority of the PAC’s cash was spent on telemarketing. The companies involved have generic, forgettable names like “Political Marketing Services,” “Market Process Group” and “Campaign Vendor Management Inc.,” which make internet searches difficult, but still pull in millions of dollars a year.
Many of these entities appear to be new, and it seems likely they are all part of a single network.
For instance, Campaign Vendor Management is a company in Gulfport, Florida, founded this April by John DiGregorio, who lives near Bohms’ old home, in Pinellas County, Florida — Charlie Crist’s district. (Florida state records show that in 1993 Bohms registered in Pinellas County as a convicted criminal. He was later charged in Florida with aggravated battery, but the case was apparently dismissed after four years.)
Federal filings reveal a tiered structure, with a level of entities above Bohms that receive massive PAC payments for vague marketing-related services. Those bigger entities, however, are better at hiding their tracks.
Take Political Marketing Services LLC, which is untraceable with any tool short of a subpoena. The company appears to be one of the biggest fish of the PAC network’s 2020 scam cycle, pulling in millions of dollars for marketing services this year alone.
The company was created in Wyoming just last year, but FEC records show that in that time it has taken in massive revenues — some in lump sum payments up to $311,000 — but from only four PAC clients, with thematic names: Security in America PAC (which terminated this April after raising $3 million and spending $3,000), Law Enforcement for a Safer America PAC, American Wounded Veterans PAC and the Firefighters Support Association PAC.
One of those clients, Law Enforcement for a Safer America, pulled in more than $12.3 million this year, filings show, but spent only $400,000 — or 3% — on political activity. It paid more than that, $421,947, to a New Jersey company called The Contact Center, Inc., which made a total of $1.2 million in the 2020 election cycle and operates a bogus website with a phone number that appears tied to a modem or fax line.
While Political Marketing Services LLC appears impossible to trace — it is registered under an anonymous agent with the admirably literal appellation Wyoming Registered Agent — an Alabama-based company also called Political Marketing Services LLC received $395,800 in coronavirus small business loans this spring.
The company told the government it was physically located at 9340 Helena Road in Birmingham, Alabama — but that address is a UPS store.
A LinkedIn page exists for Political Marketing Services, which appears to have two employees in Alabama. Its supposed website, political-marketing.net, consists of a single line of text attributed to an “old Chinese proverb”: “When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills.”
The site’s architect is a political marketing researcher from Germany. He did not reply to Salon’s request for comment.
A reporter in Cheyenne sent Salon photos taken of Wyoming Registered Agent’s address — a nondescript two-level brick building that hosts mailboxes for dozens of corporate entities from across the country, as well as a skeleton staff of administrative workers who populate the mostly empty suites.
At the reporter’s request, a member of the building’s staff called Wyoming Registered Agent to inquire about Political Marketing Services. She quickly hung up, telling the reporter that the woman at the other end of the line would not discuss the company.
It is unclear whether Bohms is connected directly to Political Marketing Services. He refused to answer multiple detailed follow-up questions. A Wisconsin lawyer named Matt Fisher, who says he represents Bohms, called Salon to ask what the story was about, but declined to discuss anything on the record.
Fisher’s bio claims he is a board member of a law enforcement advocacy charity called Band of Blue. That charity’s website, however, does not list him among its board members. IRS records indicate the charity reports less than $25,000 revenue annually.
Fisher told Salon during the call that he did not represent Bohms in connection with election law, which seems far-fetched. Last year, Fisher represented Zachary Bass, the treasurer for Heroes United PAC, and Matthew Greenlee, the group’s director and a close associate of Bohms, in their dispute with Montgomery County, Maryland. That case, a double scam split between the PAC and a related charity called the Volunteer Firefighters Association, was covered by multiple national media outlets, and the group ended up settling, agreeing to end solicitations in the county and refund any donations.
That year, Bass was listed as treasurer for five PACs. This year he is listed on none.
“It’s pretty rare to catch telemarketers,” Eric Friedman, the director of Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection, told the Center for Public Integrity at the time. “We think it’s a big news story because even though this happened in Montgomery County, it illustrates a nationwide problem where fake PACs are engaging in fake marketing for fake charities.”
FEC filings also undermine Bohms’ claim that he was not connected to American Wounded Veterans. The treasurer of Firefighters Support Association (which spent 6% of its $3.1 million revenue on political efforts) was also the original treasurer of American Wounded Veterans PAC: Mark Phillips.
While it is not clear whether these any of these LLCs or PACs raise funds for charities — and collect fees for the work — circumstantial evidence abounds.
Phillips, the treasurer of Firefighters Support Alliance, also happens to be a member of a 501c(3) charity run by Bohms called the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance.
And among the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance’s other officials is Matthew Greenlee, director of Heroes United PAC, who was paid more than $38,000 for his work with the group in the 2018 fiscal year, according to IRS records.
This charity has had its legitimacy called into question several times, and each time Bohms has defended it affably.
It appears from IRS filings that Bohms, a volunteer firefighter himself, started the VFA (website here) in 2014. The group, which also works under the name Firefighter Cancer Alliance (near-identical website here), has come under scrutiny multiple times from local sheriffs as an apparent scam. (It received a GuideStar “transparency” title in 2017.)
Just last March, for instance, the volunteer Lancaster County Fire and Rescue Department, in South Carolina, cautioned residents against responding to VFA solicitations, saying that local officials believed the letters were a scam: “No funds that are sent to the Texas return address listed would go towards Lancaster County firefighters,” the department head told the Lancaster News.
(The VFA website posts this disclaimer: When you receive a pledge confirmation in the mail, you might notice that you are asked to send your contribution to a different address than our corporate office. That address is the mail processing point for our fundraising campaign.)
A review of the organization’s tax filings shows that in 2019 the VFA pocketed more than $5 million in contributions, and managed to spend almost that exact same amount — but not on charity work: Almost all of its income went to telemarketing and fundraising efforts. Bohms paid himself $93,864.
In fact, VFA paid more than $2.2 million of its private contributions out to a notorious New Jersey-based telemarketing center called Outreach Calling. In September, the Federal Trade Commission joined the attorneys general of four states in an expansive federal lawsuit filed against Outreach Calling in the Southern District of New York, alleging that the company had scammed consumers out of millions of dollars as primary fundraisers for numerous “sham charities” that were the subjects of legal action.
Outreach Calling has been permanently banned from charity fundraising.
The founder and top executive at Outreach, Mark Gelvan, was connected to a company that specialized in PAC fundraising, called Market Process Group, in a January 2020 Reuters special report. Like Political Marketing Services, that company is impossible to trace without a court subpoena. But during the 2018 and 2020 cycles, Market Process Group made about $18 million from political organizations, according to OpenSecrets, including from American Wounded Veterans, the Firefighters Support Association, Heroes United and the American Alliance for Disabled Children.
But the VFA claims to offer legitimate charitable services, and its website is unusually heavy on specific data, which it presents upfront as proof of the group’s work.
The first pieces of information about the charity that viewers see are the “over 47,911,770 people” that Nielsen suggests may have been reached by the group’s radio PSAs; its recruitment mailings to “over 8,964,664 people”; the 423 cable outlets and “over 700 radio stations” that it has sent PSAs; and the alleged 949 people that “have contacted us wanting to become involved with their local Fire Department.”
The vast majority of that work seems to involve dumping mass amounts of unsolicited direct mail into the world. (For example: “We have mailed out 115,700 Thank You Cards nationally to our Volunteer Firefighters; Shipped ‘Thank You’ bundles to 1,544 Fire Departments across the United States.”)
The site also says the group offers a no-cost life insurance program to volunteer firefighters (a total 25 volunteer firefighters died in 2019), as well as a national crisis hotline: 1-844-550-HERO, “24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Crisis hotline hangups
Salon called the VFA crisis hotline, and selected the “suicide prevention” option. The call was redirected and immediately dropped. Salon called back and selected the “substance abuse” option. That call was also redirected and dropped. No general operators were available to assist a third attempt.
When Salon informed Bohms about the hang-ups in a text message, he replied, “I will check into that. Thank you.”
Salon tried the hotline again several days later, with the same results.
The VFA also offers another connection between Bohms and Heroes United PAC.
In 2017, Bohms disclosed his connection to Heroes United in a phone call with a man who believed he had been the target of an automated call from a group called the Volunteer Firefighters Association — nominally, a different entity from the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance, and the one involved in the scam that Heroes United settled with Montgomery County.
Fisher is the common lawyer between the groups.
The art of horseplay
One other Volunteer Firefighter Alliance board member took a $93,864 salary: Robert Kesterson, who in 2016 gave Bohms a five-star book review on Amazon, apparently the only one he has received.
In reaction to Bohms’ self-published racetrack gambling advice book, “The Art of Horseplay: The Life of a Handicapper,” Kesterson wrote:
I have been around horse racing my entire life, even grew up in a thorough bread facility. Got into wagering on races the last few years. Mr. Bohm’s system is a well known in horse betting circles. I was surprised at how many “secrets” he turned loose of in this well written book. See you at the races!
Another review of that book says, “If you got this book free, it’s still not worth reading!”
“The back of the book and description leads you to believe this is a book on how to handicap horses, what to look for in horses and picking horses to bet on. It does not!!” the reviewer warns. “This is a horrible book.”
That review is followed by another, which reads, “The first reviewer is largely correct. Except for a Show Bettor System, this book offers no information on how to handicap horses.”
Bohms has self-published a number of other books, including “The Squirrel Commander: Guide to Small Game Hunting,” “Eat Less CRAP, Eat More FOOD: A Paleo Crockpot Cookbook” and “Big Al’s Golf for Beginners,” which can be purchased for $902.81.
Big Al’s hot dogs
Bohms also has a company called Big Al’s Hot Dogs. His LinkedIn page features certificates indicating that he completed courses in “Understanding the Dates on Food Labels” and “General Nutrition: Belly Fat” through online classes provided by Texas A&M University.
Bohms originally hails from a small town in northern Illinois, but a person familiar with his family told Salon he had left for Florida decades ago after he was told he had fathered a child. His daughter had disabilities from birth, the person said, but Bohms was out of the picture and unreachable. Two years ago, after a nearly 30-year search, the mother found Bohms through his Twitter account. He has not been responsive, even after his estranged daughter reached out personally. “He wants nothing to do with her,” the person said. Bohms, who also has a family in Tennessee, has a three-year-old grandson he does not know about, the source told Salon.
“He has no business running a charitable organization,” the person said. “He’s a crook, a liar, and waste of time.”
Bohms’ brief political career was also peculiar. In 2016, he ran for Congress as a Democrat in Tennessee’s 1st congressional district, which a regional political operative told Salon has been “Republican-held since before the Civil War.”
The bar to get on a ballot in Tennessee is extraordinarily low. “It’s 25 signatures total. Anyone can get on,” the operative said. “It’s bullshit and needs to be changed.”
On the ballot
It is unclear why Bohms ran. His campaign committee raised no money, and Tennessee voter rolls do not disclose party affiliation. However, Bohms now regularly identifies himself upfront as a former congressional candidate. (No Democratic candidate had even bothered to run in the district in 2014.)
To the extent Bohms had a campaign platform, it was vaguely libertarian in tone. The East Tennessean characterized him as “a self-described family man and volunteer firefighter who stands for the rights of marginalized groups, wants to get big money out of politics and is a proud supporter of second amendment rights.”
He criticized the outsized influence of money in politics on his campaign website:
We should not be elected based on the amount of money we have to spend on an election. After all, because one Candidate has $500,000 to spend and the other only has $2,000, does that make the wealthier Candidate the better man for the job? It definitely means he is less in tune with the needs of the working class. In a democracy we should have the right to elect people on their ideas. The biggest problem I have with this is that these wealthy politicians believe they have the answers to our problems. The job title is “Representative,” which means instead of them telling us what they want to do, they should listen and the ask us want we want them to do. Then go to Washington and “represent” our views and opinions. That would be the true definition of the word representative.
As for Bohms himself, FEC records show that he has only ever made one federal campaign donation in his entire life: to Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a fiercely conservative Republican. Bohms gave her campaign and PAC $4,700 in 2018 — less than the maximum allowable amount.
Roger Sollenberger is a staff writer at Salon. Follow him on Twiter @SollenbergerRC.