*** UPDATED AT 1:15 PM WITH COMMENT FROM PRIORITIES USA ***
A top campaign watchdog group today is calling for a Justice Department criminal investigation into Super PACs supporting President Obama and GOP front runner Mitt Romney.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group sharply critical of Super PACs, said Priorities USA Action, the Obama Super PAC, and Restore Our Future, a similar group backing Romney, are both "illegal operations" because of their close ties to the candidates they are backing.
In the wake of reports that the White House has signed off on plans to urge wealthy donors to contribute to the group, Wertheimer said he is writing a letter to the Justice Department today urging criminal probes of both groups.
"In order to believe that the Super PACs supporting President Obama and Mitt Romney are 'independent' from the presidential campaigns they are supporting, you must believe in the tooth fairy," Wertheimer said.
Bill Burton, Obama's former deputy press secretary and 2008 campaign spokesman, set up Priorities USA Action last year along with another former Obama political aide, Sean Sweeney. Burton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Restore Our Future, which has spent millions in the GOP primary so far, was set up by former Romney aides Charlie Spies, who was Romney’s general counsel during his 2008 bid, and Carl Forti, who was Romney’s political director. Forti is also the political director for American Crossroads.
The White House plan to steer wealthy donors to give money to Priorities USA Action was disclosed in a blog posting on the Obama campaign website, saying that the move was needed to "neutralize the avalanche of special interest spending" being mounted on the GOP side to defeat President Obama.
"The stakes are too important to play by two different sets of rules," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager wrote.
The New York Times reported that the White House plans to dispatch top officials, including senior advisers David Plouffe and Valerie Jarrett to meet with donors. Romney himself has appeared at Restore Our Future fundraisers, something he defended on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, saying he’d acted within the law.
“They can help in terms of fundraising, but cannot in any way communicate a course of advertising, suggest when ads run, where they run, what's in the content of the ads,” Romney said of candidates and campaigns and whether or how much they can coordinate with Super PACs supporting them. “Those are things that are prohibited so we're being very careful in that regard.”
A top strategist who works with Democratic Super PACs told NBC News that the White House decision came after mounting worries within party circles that spending by a phalanx of GOP Super PACs could reach $1 billion by election day -- including $100 million from the conservative oil magnate Koch brothers -- drowning out the president's message
"When you see numbers like that, it starts getting a little spooky," the strategist said.
He also said most big Democratic donors have so far been gun shy of the Super PACs, because of Obama's past criticism of such groups. In the 2010 election, Obama charged that GOP groups, fueled with “special interest” money, were threatening to “hijack” democracy.
"We need some of our big birds to get off the wire," the strategist said, noting that some wealthy donors have expressed concerns that they'll be "demonized" if they give to one of the Democratic Super PACs.
So far, Priorities USA Action has had relatively little success in raising funds, reporting last week that it had collected just $4.4 million through the end of last year. A Priorities official said it had raised another $2.3 million via a 501(c)4 arm that doesn’t have to disclose donors. (The Karl Rove-Ed Gillespie-led groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have a similar set up and has raised far more money.)
That $6.7 million is compared to the $30 million raised by Restore Our Future and the $51 million reported raised by American Crossroads and its non-profit, non-disclosed affiliate Crossroads GPS.
The pro-Obama group did report a handful of big checks, including $2 million from Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, $1 million from the SEIU labor union, $100,000 from director Steven Spielberg, and others.
While individual donors can only give $2,500 a piece to official campaign committees, the Super PACs can collect unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, and labor unions. Priorities USA Action also reported last week that $215,000 of its operating expenses were being paid by its non-profit affiliate -- called Priorities USA -- which like Crossroads GPS, does not disclose its donors.
"As much as [David] Axelrod hates to give up this part of the president's message,” the strategist said, “most voters are pretty cynical about this stuff and don't much care.”
*** UPDATE *** Priorities spokesman Bill Burton disputes the notion that Priorities is an "illegal operation."
"We of course are abiding by all appropriate rules and laws," Burton said.