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Stephen Colbert shuts super PAC. Where did the money go?

Stephen Colbert could essentially just pocket the money his super PAC didn't spend – a point he made in his further attempts to show the underside of campaign finance.

By Staff Writer / November 14, 2012

Stephen Colbert hosts a South Carolina primary rally with former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain at the College of Charleston in January. Mr. Colbert is set to take over "The Late Show" for David Letterman in 2015. How will his antics, audience, and appeal translate to network television?

Jason Reed/Reuters/File

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Stephen Colbert has closed his "super political action committee," in case you haven’t heard. The funnyman announced the move on his eponymous Comedy Central show earlier this week. He said he was disappointed that rich groups such as his “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” didn’t appear to have had much influence on the election. He also professed to be worried that angry donors were after him for revenge.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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“How did they find out I work at ‘The Colbert Report’? ” he wailed before sacrificing a canned ham dressed up as Karl Rove to appease his presumed pursuers.

Yes, that’s what we said – he sacrificed a canned ham. He’s a performance artist, what can we say? If you want more background on that, read Ham Rove’s obituary, which has replaced the old Colbert super PAC home page on the web.

As the obit says, “don’t stop bereaving.”

As is often the case with Mr. Colbert, there’s a bit more substance to this bit than first meets the wallet, um, eye. When he shut the super PAC, it still had almost $800,000 in contributions, mostly from small donors who’d sent in money after watching his show. What happened to the cash?

Glad you asked! We don’t really know. It’s quite possible that Colbert has just pocketed it as a hedge against Obama actually winning higher taxes on the rich. If he had, that would be perfectly legal.

Because that was Colbert’s real point – that America’s campaign-donation laws are even more bizarre than you think. They don’t just allow groups unaccountable to the voters to gather and spend in elections unlimited amounts of cash. They also allow political entrepreneurs to take that cash and make it disappear, to be used for untraceable purposes.

Colbert showed how this all works on Monday night’s show. He had on Trevor Potter, former head of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Colbert’s personal election lawyer. Mr. Potter showed him how to donate a check from the super PAC to an existing 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which then forwarded the money to a new secret 501(c)(4), where it essentially disappeared.

Colbert illustrated this by actually writing the check, passing it through an open-ended manila envelope (existing 501(c)(4)), then putting it in a locked wood box (new secret 501(c)(4)). He waited a beat and then reopened the locked box.

The check had disappeared.

“So what do I have to tell ... the IRS about what happened with the money?” Colbert asked Potter.

“Nothing,” said Potter.

Colbert smiled like he was a Grinch in the midst of stealing Christmas. “Well, Trevor, thanks for nothing,” he crowed.

As far as we can tell, this wasn’t just an act. Colbert’s super PAC actually filed a termination report with the FEC on Tuesday, and if you scroll down you can see that it lists an outflow of $7.73 million as “other disbursements.” That’s the money that the super PAC was sitting on, going ... somewhere. Of which we know not.

Maybe Colbert’s donors should demand their money back. He wouldn’t have to give it to them. But we bet Colbert’s evil archrival, Jon Stewart, could turn that into a funny running bit.

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