Dr. Ada Fisher doesn't have much good to say about BMW Direct, the Washington political firm that raised money on behalf of her 2006 bid for a North Carolina House seat.
"They sort of -- what shall I say? -- screwed me," Fisher said in a recent interview.
BMW Direct raised more than $400,000 for Fisher during the last election cycle, but only about $30,000 made it back to her to use in her campaign against U.S. Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC). Sound familiar?
Fisher complained that she never understood where the money raised on her behalf was going. She did not know that many key vendors used by BMW Direct were owned or operated by BMW staffers.
"They make it seem like each of these people is a private entity. But as you listen more and more and you get smarter, you realize they all work together," Fisher said.
BMW Direct and its staff operate a handful of companies out of a downtown Washington office building -- data processors, donor-list rentals, mail services, etc.
Fisher said BMW Direct urged her to "hire" its FEC compliance officer, Scott Mackenzie in Washington, to serve as her campaign treasurer, as he has done on other long-shot campaigns. But she refused, she said, and had a friend serve as treasurer.
So BMW Direct raised the money on her behalf, processed it and then doled out information and cash at its own pace.
Just a day or two before FEC filing deadlines, the firm would send Fisher large files of fundraising data for her to copy and submit under her name.
"We'd fill out the FEC forms based on the information they gave us. They would just tell us: This is how much money you raised," Fisher said.
Fisher's biggest complaint was that the fraction of money she did actually receive came too late. The firm never told her how much money to expect and was unable to plan for the fall campaign.
In late September 2006, she received her first check from BMW Direct for $5,000 and several similar checks followed in October.
"By that time, it was too late," she said.
But according to BMW Direct, Fisher's case was a unique.
Jordan Gehrke, BMW Direct's director of development, agreed that the fundraising efforts for Fisher were not as successful as those of other clients.
That's because she contacted the firm later than most candidates, after the election cycle was underway, Gehrke explained. That shortened the window of time for fundraising, which is critical for direct-mail efforts.
"In Fisher's case, we started eleven months before the election. She was an attractive candidate, and we believed her appeal would enable her to outperform the usual time window," Gehrke said in a written response to questions from TPMmuckraker.
"We firmly believed in her candidacy, and we think we would have been very successful if we had had another six months. For all kinds of reasons, fortune had its say, and things did not work out as we hoped."
The fees -- which in Fisher's case took up more than 90 percent of the total money raised -- are clearly explained to all clients from the outset, Gehrke said.
"We have a very clear contract. We take a lot of time going through this stuff with our clients yo make sure they understand the process....Nothing gets paid without the clients' approval," he said in an interview.
Even if a candidate loses a race, Gehrke said, the direct mail effort is still a valuable way to build a candidates name recognition and shape perceptions about the Republican Party.
"Is it worth it? Yes. If she doesn't win this year, maybe she ends up turning it into a state senate seat a few years later and then runs for congress again," Gehrke said. "Going into a district where Republicans have not traditionally competed and having a black doctor on the ballot is a way of saying this is not your father's Republican Party. This is what building a party is about. This is what expanding your coalition is about. The point is, it has value."