Jeb Bush

An ally of Jeb Bush, a likely Republican presidential candidate, has created a tax-exempt organization that would be closely intertwined with Bush’s political operation. The group would serve as a policy hub for the campaign, its founder said. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

By Ed O’Keefe and Matea Gold
March 31, 2015 at 7:26 PM

Jeb Bush has given his tacit endorsement to a new group that can collect unlimited amounts of money in secret, part of a bold effort by his advisers to create a robust external political operation before he declares his expected White House bid.

The nonprofit group, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, was quietly established in Arkansas in February by a friend and former Bush staffer. The group shares the name of two political committees for which Bush has been aggressively raising money — blurring the line that is supposed to separate a campaign from independent groups.

While ideological nonprofits have become major players in national politics in recent years, this marks the first time one has been so embedded in the network of a prospective candidate.

An individual donor can give no more than $5,400 to a presidential campaign. Individuals and corporations can give unlimited sums to super PACs, and their names are publicly reported. But with the new Right to Rise group, individuals and corporations can give as much as they want while remaining anonymous.

Election-law experts predict that the creation of the ­Bush-allied nonprofit will prompt other 2016 contenders to adopt the strategy, injecting more secret money into the political process.

“If it looks like a good idea, others are going to copy it in short order,” said Kenneth Gross, a Washington campaign finance lawyer and former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.

Supporters of stricter enforcement of campaign finance rules said the move raises serious legal questions, such as whether the group could later be considered affiliated with the eventual campaign or viewed as an entity established by Bush. But other legal experts said the operation could be designed to avoid those pitfalls.

Aides to Bush, a former Florida governor, declined to comment on the new group.

“These questions are premature and speculative as Governor Bush is not a candidate for office at this time,” said his spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell.

In early February, Bill Simon, a former chief executive of Wal-Mart, formed Right to Rise Policy Solutions as a nonprofit corporation in his home state of Arkansas, according to public records. Simon served as head of Florida’s Department of Management Services during Bush’s second term as governor, and the two remain close. In recent months Simon has been helping Bush develop policy positions and identifying potential experts to eventually join the campaign.

Simon told The Washington Post in an e-mail that he established the group “to highlight conservative policies that will restore economic and social mobility in America. The organization will be engaged in policy generation that is consistent with Governor Bush’s optimistic, conservative message and vision for the future of America.”

Simon said he plans to launch a Web site “that will highlight conservative, reform-minded policies.” The group will make the content available publicly online. That would allow the nonprofit to share information with Bush’s campaign and super PAC without running afoul of tax rules, which restrict its political activity.

Simon stressed that the group will “comply with all applicable IRS regulations.” While it can accept unlimited donations, he added, the nonprofit “is a policy group. Not a political or fundraising group.”

The group’s role as a policy hub raises questions about who would be guiding Bush’s policies — an in-house team or an outside operation. Simon didn’t respond to follow-up questions about the scope of his new group, including the level of Bush’s involvement or if the group plans to disclose the names of its donors.

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