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By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/6/2011 4:48:36 PM ET 2011-08-06T20:48:36

In a move aimed at tamping down a mounting controversy over secret money in presidential politics, a political committee backing Mitt Romney Saturday publicly identified a former Bain Capital managing director as the source of a mysterious $1 million contribution to its coffers.

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Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney committee, said that Edward W. Conard, who was for years associated with Bain Capital, the huge investment firm that Romney once headed, was the figure behind an obscure company called “W Spann LLC” that was listed as donating $1 million to the group last spring. Conard has continued to list his affiliation with Bain Capital when making sizeable campaign contributions in recent years even though a Bain Capital spokesman said he retired from the firm in 2007.

The disclosure of Conard’s identity, first reported by Politico, would appear to solve a Washington mystery that has swirled for days after NBC News reported this week on the murky origins of W Spann LLC : The company was formed in Delaware in March, made its contribution in April, and then dissolved in July, leaving no paper trail as to who its owners were — or even where it was located.

But campaign watchdog groups said Saturday that they will continue to press for a Justice Department investigation into the contribution, saying that unless such a probe is conducted, it will open the door for other donors to conceal their campaign contributions through shadowy "pop up" corporate fronts.

“Clearly, he thought damage control was in order,” said David Vance, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy group that promotes transparency in elections, about Conard’s decision to come forward.

The disclosure also lessens the heat on Restore Our Future, one of a new wave of so-called “super pacs,” formed by three former Romney political aides for the express purpose of electing Romney president. Although such groups are supposed to be independent of the campaign committees run by candidates — and are therefore allowed to collect unlimited donations from corporations and wealthy donors — Romney has personally appeared at Restore Our Future fundraising events to thank its contributors.

Efforts to reach Conard on Saturday were not successful and it was not immediately clear why he chose to make his hefty contribution to Restore Our Future in the unorthodox way that he did. A search of publicly available records shows that he was a managing director of Bain Capital for years—joining the company in 1993 — and has been a longtime donor to Romney and Republicans across the country. He has made over $180,000 in campaign contributions over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political donations.

Spokesman: Conard retired in 2007
A spokesman for Bain Capital told NBC that Conard had retired from the firm in 2007 and therefore his role as the secret owner of W Spann LLC did not contradict the company’s public statement this week that “the entity in question is not affiliated with Bain Capital or any of our employees.”

But according to the campaign records, Conard was continuing to list Bain Capital as his place of employment when he made sizeable donations to Republican political committees after 2007. These include contributions of $25,000 to the Republican National Committee on Oct. 17, 2008, $28,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) on Sept. 22, 2008, and $30,400 to the NRSC on September 16, 2010 — all of which listed his place of employment as Bain Capital, according to the Center for Responsive Politics data.

In addition, Conard – who serves as trustee of a family foundation, called the Conard-David Family Foundation — listed the non-profit’s address as “Bain Capital, 590 Madison Ave. 42nd floor” on its 2009 tax filing, the most recent publicly available. (The 590 Madison Ave. address is the same one listed for W Spann LLC on the Restore Our Future campaign report recording the $1 million donation from the company.) Asked about Conard's listing of Bain Capital as his address and place of employment after 2007, the Bain spokesman said that the firm continued to provide him with office space "as a courtesy" it extends to all its retired partners.

A source close to Restore Our Future, who asked not to be publicly identified, said that a Washington lawyer representing Conard contacted the group on Friday night and said he would be providing a statement in coming days that would allow the group to identify his client by name — rather than W Spann LLC — as the source of the million dollar contribution. The source was unable to say whether any of the political committee’s fundraisers or officials had been aware of Conard’s role prior to this.

“We’re glad Mr. Conard has chosen to come forward putting an end to this supposed controversy,” Brittany Gross, a spokeswoman for Restore Our Future, said in an email statement Saturday. “Restore our Future will amend our report per Mr. Conard’s request to reflect him as the donor."

Through his D.C. lawyer Rob Kelner, Conard said in a statement: "I am the individual who formed and funded W Spann LLC. I authorized W Spann LLC's contribution to Restore Our Future PAC. I did so after consulting prominent legal counsel regarding the transaction, and based on my understanding that the contribution would comply with applicable laws. To address questions raised by the media concerning the contribution, I will request that Restore Our Future PAC amend its public reports to disclose me as the donor associated with this contribution."

Campaign watchdog groups said Saturday that it unlikely that Conard ever would have come forward absent public pressure — or the threat of a Justice Department investigation — making it all the more important that there be greater public disclosure of contributions to so-called independent “super pacs” like Restore Our Future or non disclosing non-profit political groups.

“This case of the secret $1 million donor shows the extraordinary lengths that people are prepared to go to in order to hide their campaign contributions from the American people,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a longtime advocate for campaign reform.

“More importantly this case illustrates the secret campaign money culture we now live in as the result of gaping loopholes in our federal campaign finance disclosure laws,” he added.

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