Washington • On air, Stephen Colbert has two advisers for his super PAC. One is Trevor Potter, a prominent campaign finance attorney, and the other is a canned ham with glasses.
But off camera, Matt Sanderson, a spiky-haired Orem native just a few years out of law school, is helping Colbert navigate the quirky laws that have led to a deluge of unfiltered money in politics.
“The Colbert Report” last week won a Peabody Award, one of the top prizes for electronic media, for its satirical look at super political action committees, and the show’s long-running spoof is far from over. Colbert has just sold 1,000 “super fun packs” to college students, helping them create similar entities at universities across the nation, and he’s likely to produce political ads through his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, throughout this election year.
“He raised a million dollars. He has to do something with it,” jokes Sanderson, who works with Potter at Caplin & Drysdale’s political practice based in Washington, D.C.
Potter’s job is to manage the firm’s relationship with the Comedy Central show and to interact with Colbert, while Sanderson’s role is to handle any day-to-day legal work, which could be anything from filings with the Federal Election Commission to reviewing a television script to make sure the gags are technically accurate — and legal.
It’s a process far removed from his regular practice of helping corporations contribute to political groups and one he has relished, since he has had a hard time explaining his work to his wife, Emily, without losing her attention.
“It is very difficult to make these types of topics interesting, so I think you can get a sense of how smart he and his staff are by looking at the finished product,” Sanderson said. “To make it interesting is an accomplishment worth recognition.”
On “The Colbert Report,” all of the honor falls on the charismatic, pseudo-conservative talk-show host, and Sanderson knows it — but he’s not unfamiliar with the spotlight, either.
Since graduating from Vanderbilt Law School in 2008, he has also worked as counsel to John McCain’s failed presidential bid and launched his own political action committee to pressure college football to adopt a playoff system.
The Playoff PAC earned him and four friends a nomination for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsmen of the Year honor and landed them in a six-page spread in ESPN the Magazine last year after their incessant needling of the Bowl Championship Series resulted in an investigation that brought down the head of the Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s kind of funny that all of this is attributable to a two-week intensive course I took,” said Sanderson, who received his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah.
That two-week course was on the U.S. presidency, and the teacher was Kirk Jowers, who now heads the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the U. and is a partner at Caplin & Drysdale.
Jowers said Sanderson received “the highest score I had ever administered,” so he pushed the institute to give Sanderson a job and helped him land an internship at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit advocating for tougher campaign-finance laws.
The Campaign Legal Center is the brainchild of Jowers and Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
From there, Sanderson went to law school and started spending summers at Caplin & Drysdale. The firm brought him to D.C. shortly after his graduation, and Jowers hired Sanderson and his wife to act as the Hinckley Institute’s liaisons to its Washington interns.
Potter credits Sanderson for pushing him to accept Colbert’s invitation to go on the show and to take him on as a client. Though the way Sanderson recalls it, Potter wasn’t clued in to Colbert’s act.
“I actually told him, ‘Well, there are two types of guests on that show. One is you are the distinguished guest, who gets to play the straight man to Stephen and you retain your dignity,’ ” said Sanderson. “ ‘And there are the guests who are kind of chumps. Just make sure you are not the chump.’ ”
Potter has decidedly not been the chump.
His first order of business was to get the FEC to allow Colbert to operate a super PAC and discuss it on his television show without requiring Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, to count the airtime as a contribution.
After the FEC gave the go-ahead, Colbert addressed fans, reporters and his own camera crew gathered on the street.
“We owe a debt to my lawyers Trevor Potter and Matt Sanderson of the heroic law firm Caplin & Drysdale,” Colbert said. “Two names that will go down with the great American duos — Lewis and Clark, Sacco and Vanzetti, Harold and Kumar.”
Potter leaned over to Sanderson and asked: “Who is Harold and Kumar?”
“I still haven’t answered him,” said Sanderson, about the comic duo who get into marijuana-fueled adventures in their movies.
In Colbert’s most recent segments, he has offered college students a kit to create their own super PACs for $99. They quickly sold out. The kit included a “Trevor-may-I button,” with pre-recorded jokes from Colbert’s attorney, and an instruction manual, written by Potter and Sanderson, that would walk students through the legal process necessary to create a political group that can collect unlimited contributions as long as they don’t work in tandem with a candidate.
The manual is dead serious, but Colbert’s team mocked it up to look like an IKEA instruction manual, complete with an Allen wrench.
Jowers has also done some work for the Colbert super PAC and went with his protégé to a taping of the show in New York.
“They have been amazing partners to put up with attorneys ruining their best jokes at times,” Jowers said.
Potter, Jowers and Sanderson credit the show with raising awareness of campaign finance issues, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that led to the growth in super PACs, which have spent millions on attack ads in the presidential race and even in some state races, including in Utah.
“In my opinion, his commentary has really highlighted the fact that Citizens United was based on a really faulty factual assumption,” said Sanderson. “By that, I mean [the assumption] that super PACs and entities like them are legitimately independent from candidates. It is not the case. It is basically the campaign committee that has not been expressly authorized by the candidate.”
“The Colbert Report” not only has the help of two Utahns in Jowers and Sanderson, but the program also is expected to take on a Hinckley intern this summer.
And don’t forget the canned ham with glasses, which Colbert has named “Ham Rove,” a play on famed GOP strategist Karl Rove.
The real Rove attended the University of Utah, though he never graduated, so it’s quite possible that Ham Rove may have some Utah ties that Colbert has not yet revealed.
Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune is hosting a Hinckley intern this semester.