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On The Million-Dollar Trail Of A Mystery SuperPAC Donor

The superPACs raising money to support presidential candidates have few restrictions. They can accept checks for any amount.

One rule they do have: They have to reveal who donated money.

Go down the list of people who have given a million dollars to a superPAC, and you realize many of them are not shy about their wealth.

"They're happy to give. They're proud to give. They want public recognition for having given," says Paul Seamus Ryan, a lawyer with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

But there are some donors who hide from public scrutiny.

On the list of million-dollar donors, there is a strange name. It looks like the kind of slang you'd see in a teenager's text message: "F8."

That's the donor's name — maybe pronounced "Fate"?

"I had no idea who the entity was," Ryan says.

And yet F8 in Provo, Utah, had given $1 million to Restore Our Future, the superPAC supporting Mitt Romney. And right next to it was another name unknown to our campaign expert: Eli Publishing — also a $1 million donor, and also located in Provo, Utah.

: Who's behind the donations?

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that something is fishy. Corporations are allowed to donate to superPACs. Perhaps a couple of rich Utah companies wanted to support Romney.

But it turns out that even Utahans didn't recognize these companies.

"I had never heard of either," says Max Roth, the political reporter for Fox 13 News in Salt Lake City. "A publisher that has the kind of margins to give a million dollars to a political campaign and a publisher that is located in Utah — you think that you would have heard of this company."

So Roth started to do a little research. Neither company appears to sell anything. The publisher has no books on Amazon. Both companies had the same address. They were both based in Suite #420 in a generic office building in Provo.

Roth drove there. There was no mention of the companies in the lobby; no evidence of a Suite #420.

"We went up to the fourth floor and we walked around the hallway, and there's ... nothing with either name," Roth says. "There's nothing with that suite number."

The office taking the mail for the missing suite and the mysterious companies had no idea what they were.

This is when the Campaign Legal Center got really interested in these donations. You can't funnel money through someone else's name. You couldn't, for example, give a million dollars to a toddler and make him give it to a superPAC.

Ryan says F8 and Eli Publishing may be a corporate version of that clueless child.

"If a corporation makes a million-dollar contribution, and that corporation seemingly has no business activity — no way to generate a million dollars in revenue — then it immediately raises the question: Where'd the money come from? And is this corporate entity being used as an illegal straw donor to hide the identity of the true source of the funds?"

The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against the companies with the Federal Election Commission.

Eli Publishing lists Steven Lund as its contact name. F8 is registered to his son-in-law. Both men have connections to a corporation called Nu Skin, a multilevel marketing company a little like Amway that sells anti-aging creams and vitamin supplements.

Lund, one of the company's founders, is a multimillionaire. He keeps a low profile, except when it comes to his charitable work: feeding children in Africa. On a video from a Nu Skin convention, you can see him strumming a guitar and playing a song he wrote about a trip to Malawi.

Lund is prominent in the Mormon church, and it seems that his relationship with Romney goes way back. Lund was an executive at Nu Skin when it sponsored the Winter Olympics in 2002. Romney ran those games.

Lund did not respond to requests for an interview about the donations. But he did call up Roth, the Fox 13 reporter, after Roth visited the office building. Lund told Roth that it was his money, and that he wasn't hiding anything.

"His explanation was more about not wanting to be real public about being a part of the campaign," Roth says.

Yet by using a mysterious publishing company with no actual books, he attracted even more attention.

"His voice sounded a little sheepish as he was talking about that," Roth says, "because clearly it did have the opposite effect."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.