WASHINGTON — A few weeks before the Republican primary in Florida in January, the billionaire owner of the NFL's Miami Dolphins hosted a fundraiser for Mitt Romney at his oceanfront home in Palm Beach. The average voter wouldn't know about the event at the home of Stephen Ross because Romney's campaign doesn't follow the practice of other major presidential candidates who have willingly identified big-money fundraisers and the amounts they collect.
A review by The Associated Press of campaign records and other documents reveals hints about the vast national network of business leaders bringing in millions to elect Romney. The same month that Ross invited friends and colleagues to his home, for example, Romney's campaign received $317,000 from nearly 150 people who share Ross's exclusive ZIP code on Florida's east coast, according to Federal Election Commission records. That mysterious surge of donations outpaced all contributions to Romney during the previous year from the wealthy Palm Beach area, when the campaign collected $270,000 over nine months. Romney got $21,000 more from residents there in February.
Unlike President Barack Obama, Romney's campaign will not identify his major fundraisers, and federal law doesn't require him to. The AP identified several of Romney's "bundlers" through interviews, finance records, event invitations and other publicity about campaign events. The lack of transparency by the Romney campaign prevents voters from knowing who wields influence inside the GOP frontrunner's campaign and how their interests might benefit if he is elected. Romney is in California this week for at least five private fundraisers.
Bundlers are typically well-connected business and banking executives who tap their professional and social networks to steer individual contributions from others to the campaign in amounts that can range from $10,000 to well over $500,000. Experienced bundlers can reach these highest amounts quickly. Persuading 25 couples to attend a VIP reception with the candidate for $2,500 each — the maximum an individual can give a campaign — raises $125,000 in a single evening.
Even in the era of "super" political action committees, which can pull in millions of dollars in unlimited and effectively anonymous contributions to support candidates, bundlers are their own campaign forces. Unlike super PACs, which can't legally coordinate with candidates, bundlers raise large amounts deposited directly into a campaign's bank account — money that can be spent to pay for salaries, get-out-the-vote efforts and advertising.
This presidential election is expected to be among the costliest ever. Obama's re-election campaign has raised just over $151 million. His campaign released the names of its bundlers in late January, and the list illustrates how important these elite fundraisers have become. More than 440 bundlers collected at least $75 million to help Obama win a second term, including 61 people who each raised at least half-million dollars.
Fundraising has been a bright spot for Romney during the bruising GOP primary. Romney has built a potent organization that has pulled in nearly $75 million. Two-thirds of the total — nearly $49 million — came from people who gave the $2,500 maximum, which can be indicative of contributions pulled together by bundlers. Just $6.5 million, or 9 percent, came from supporters who gave $200 or less. The emphasis on top-tier donations indicates an active network of fundraisers who are targeting high-end contributors.
"Romney is less focused on small donors than any other candidate at this stage of the campaign in recent memory," said Michael Malbin, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. "And that is parallel to a larger problem: He has not yet excited the passions of the kind of people who give small contributions or volunteer their time."
One prominent Romney supporter, Lewis M. Eisenberg, said that even with the rise of super PACs like Restore Our Future, which helped Romney pay for important advertising, the campaign is still dependent as ever on "hard money" that pays for salaries, state organizing, television ads, direct mailings and other expenses.
"It's fair to say we still haven't seen the clear impact of all the changes," said Eisenberg, co-chairman for Romney's campaign in Florida and John McCain's finance chairman in 2008. "What we do know is you still need the hard dollars that go to the campaign — to deliver the direct message of the candidate and the campaign."
Federal law requires only that candidates identify bundlers who also are registered lobbyists, which the Romney campaign has done. Sixteen lobbyists representing a wide range of interests raised nearly $2.2 million for him last year, according to FEC records. Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said the campaign discloses all the information about its donors required by law.
The AP's review identified dozens of people who fit the profile of a bundler for Romney. Many are listed on invitations for Romney fundraising events, assigned to mine their business and personal networks for maximum campaign contributions.
Several were the same mega-donors who gave million-dollar contributions to Restore Our Future, the independently run super PAC supporting Romney. Seven of the 15 millionaires and billionaires who gave $1 million to the super PAC have either hosted Romney fundraising events or joined his finance committees. They include Tiger Management head Julian Robertson, hedge fund founders Paul Singer and John Paulson, and businessmen William Koch, Francis Rooney and Frank VanderSloot.
Former Bain Capital executive Edward Conard, whose anonymous $1 million donation to the super PAC in August spurred controversy until he came forward publicly, was one of the lead fundraisers for a December Romney event in New York. Conard declined to detail his fundraising role for the campaign but said he "wouldn't have a problem" if the campaign identified Romney's bundlers.
New York's financial institutions are the hub of Romney's fundraising, ties that were forged during Romney's rise in the 1980s as founder of Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity firm he directed until 1999. Over the past year, he has made regular stops at restaurants, hotels, law firms and private clubs in New York to collect donations. He is regularly joined by wealthy investment, hedge fund and banking executives who have signed on to run fundraisers.
One major Romney donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss fundraising practices behind the scenes, acknowledged that Romney financiers who serve as event hosts or are listed as members of campaign finance committees are likely Romney's bundlers and generally asked to raise a certain amount.
Romney's largest source of donations is employees at Goldman Sachs, the New York based investment and securities firm. More than $426,000 flowed into the Romney campaign in 2011 from individuals who identified themselves as Goldman Sachs managers or employees, and the Romney campaign has listed several senior or former Goldman Sachs executives as lead fundraisers of its campaign events, including John Whitehead, the firm's former chairman.
One top Goldman Sachs fundraiser is Muneer Satter of Chicago, a managing partner who heads the firm's Mezzanine Group. Satter was a co-chairman of Romney's national finance committee during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid. Satter was a lead fundraiser for at least two events for Romney in 2011, one in New York in December and another in Chicago in May, and gave $195,000 to the super PAC supporting Romney. Satter did not return several telephone messages from the AP.
Eisenberg, a senior advisor to the Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts private equity fund, would not say whether he was a bundler. But his activities bear the hallmarks of a major fundraiser.
A former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a $500,000-level bundler for McCain in 2008, Eisenberg was a lead fundraiser for Romney events in New York in October and December, and he hosted a reception at a New York law firm in late September. He also gave $25,000 to the super PAC supporting Romney, adding to a $100,000 donation to the group in February from KKR founder Henry Kravis. Donors listing KKR as their place of business gave $36,000 to Romney's campaign in 2011.
Two other major sources of Romney's campaign money are the New York investment bank JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Credit Suisse, the international bank based in Switzerland.
The former chairman of JPMorgan, William B. Harrison, was a lead fundraiser at a New York event for Romney in mid-December. Two executives of JPMorgan subsidiaries, Andy Sriubas and Reinier Prijten, were listed at events for Romney last fall. And four senior JPMorgan executives — among them the bank's vice chairman, James B. Lee and former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, now the firm's director of Florida, Central American and Caribbean operations — hosted a separate December fundraiser for Romney.
In the two weeks before and after the December fundraisers, the Romney campaign received more than $60,000 in contributions from JPMorgan employees, according to federal election records.
The chairman of Credit Suisse in New York, Eric Varvel, was listed on invitations for two fundraisers for Romney in New York in October and December, as well as for a New York fundraiser earlier this month. The Romney campaign reportedly took in nearly $2 million from that event and another in New York that day.
Donors who listed their employer as JPMorgan accounted for $305,000 in contributions to Romney last year, according to campaign records. More than $283,000 came from individuals who identified Credit Suisse as their place of employment.
Bobbie Kilberg, chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia Technology Council in suburban Washington, helped collect more than $2.2 million and said she is "profoundly proud to be identified as a person who raises money for Mitt Romney."
Kilberg said she has worked with a team of Romney supporters who have held a series of fundraisers for him, including a June 29 event at the Ritz Carlton in Northern Virginia, which brought in nearly $350,000. An Oct. 25 gathering at her home in McLean, Va., raised $356,000. That was followed by another fundraiser that collected more than $1.5 million.
Daniel Dumezich, a partner with the Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago, said he held fundraisers for Romney in Indiana. He also helped organize volunteers and supporters for the campaign. Dumezich said his goal was to inspire others to support Romney, encouraging them to write checks and to find others to give money. Dumezich said he doesn't mind being identified as supporting Romney. But he said he doesn't have an opinion about whether Romney's campaign should also disclose how much he and others are raising.
"I haven't thought about that," he said.
Associated Press writers Jack Gillum, Brett J. Blackledge and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.