October 30, 2011; Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Last week, the big controversy about the Herman Cain campaign concerned the TV ads featuring a cigarette-smoking Mark Block, Cain’s campaign chief of staff. Cain explained the surprise TV cigarette drags by telling CBS’s Bob Schieffer, “let Mark be Mark. Let people be people.” It was obviously a rehearsed answer, as in his own interview Block answered Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s questions with “let Block be Block”.

Will the critics simply let Herman Cain’s campaign chief of staff be who he is? Unfortunately, there is now a new controversy around Block of potentially more significance than his addiction to cigarettes.

According to the Journal Sentinel, Mark Block and Linda Hansen (she is now Cain’s deputy chief of staff under Block) ran two nonprofits that paid for thousands of dollars of Cain’s early campaign expenses—and that might be outside the boundaries of federal election law.

Their two nonprofit organizations—Prosperity USA and the Wisconsin Prosperity Network—were apparently established by Block and run by Block and Hansen before they joined the Cain campaign. Allegedly, Prosperity USA (where Block was the sole board member) says it is owed $40,000 by the Cain campaign for a variety of campaign expenses it incurred on behalf of the campaign in February and March. The JS implies that the expenditures included iPads, chartered flights and travel to Iowa and Las Vegas, and more (something referred to as a $15,000 “Atlanta invoice”). Prosperity USA also gave $100,000 to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which then had Cain as its featured Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speaker this past January (the JS says that the dinner was “hosted by controversial conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart”).

Prosperity has had other notable expenses, including paying singer Krista Branch to record “I Am America,” purportedly the “unofficial anthem of the tea party movement.” IT also paid for a trip Block took to meet with the Koch brothers. Those are presumably legitimate expenses for an independent organization like Prosperity USA. Paying for Herman Cain’s campaign expenses—and then Block’s leaving the organization in debt to jump to the top position in the campaign—strikes some observers as not quite as legitimate.

With Block’s unusual history of steering his “independent” nonprofits a little too close to the Herman Cain campaign, the Georgia pizza magnate might find his electoral hopes in trouble due to the drip drip drip of revelations like these about Prosperity USA.—Rick Cohen