Stephen Colbert vs. Karl Rove: Who's better at 'money laundering'?

Stephen Colbert has taken his mockery of campaign finance in the US to a new level by showing he can funnel unlimited, anonymous cash into his Colbert Super PAC.

Comedian Stephen Colbert speaks outside of the Federal Election Commission after his hearing to have his Colbert SuperPAC approved in Washington this summer.

Stephen Colbert is setting up something that’s pretty close to a money laundering operation. Why? So that rich folks and corporations can anonymously channel money into his "super PAC" – a political action committee that in turn can spend unlimited funds advocating for issues and candidates it likes.

Again you ask, why? What’s the point of a comedian setting up such sophisticated campaign-finance apparatus? The answer to that seems obvious – he’s making fun of it. As we’ve said before, Mr. Colbert is a performance artist as much as a comic. What he’s highlighting here is the absurdity of US campaign finance regulations – or rather, how they may be regulations in name only.

After all, he’s defined PAC as standing for plastic and/or cash, and invited supporters to a political BYOB party – Bring Your Own Billions. His show now features a “heroes crawl” at the bottom of the screen that lists names of donors to his political slush fund.

As to the amount of cash he’s collected so far, he said on Thursday’s show “we’re into numbers I wouldn’t want to serve in federal prison”.

If you’re confused, we’ll back up a bit here and lay out Colbert’s finance landscape. In June, he won approval from the Federal Election Commission to form a super PAC, a kind of committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash on political activities. The main limitation of such organizations is that they’re not supposed to directly coordinate activities with a candidate.

Of course, you’d have to be a special kind of donor to entrust your money to Stephen Colbert. He’s not going to use it for ads that discuss the merits of President Obama’s approach to Israel. Indeed, the Colbert Super PAC produced an ad that urged voters in the recent Ames, Iowa, straw poll to vote for “Rick Parry.” (Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s name is spelled with an “e”.)

Now, another limitation of super PACs is that they must disclose their donors, and that was the jumping-off point for Colbert’s Thursday show. He had his lawyer, Trevor Potter, come out and give him the paperwork for his brand new shell corporation, named “Anonymous Shell Corporation.” This kind of organization, known in campaign finance terms as a 501(c)(4) firm, doesn’t have to disclose its donors. In turn, it can give unlimited amounts to super PACs.

“What is the difference between that and money laundering?” asked Colbert.

“It’s hard to say,” said his lawyer.

Colbert has a specific target in mind here. He’s after Karl Rove – earlier on the show, he’d interviewed a canned ham wearing glasses, calling it “Ham Rove.” Mr. Rove is a force behind the creation of a GOP super PAC named “American Crossroads,” and a shell corporation named “Crossroads GPS” that can accept unlimited cash from individuals and corporations, then funnel it to American Crossroads.

“Crossroads GPS’s policy is to not provide the names of its donors to the general public,” notes the group on its website.

For its part, American Crossroads is currently the biggest source of outside expenditures in the 2012 campaign cycle, according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics. So far it’s spent more than $1.1 million aiding GOP causes.

We’ll note that the House Majority PAC, a liberal group, is close behind in second place, at around $900,000 for Democrats. Will Colbert Super PAC ever make the top 10 here? We’re calling him out – he’s just doing chump change so far.

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