Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s Senate campaign and the National Rifle Association’s PAC have engaged in an elaborate scheme to conceal illegal coordination, a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleges.
Hawley’s campaign is employing the same people to produce ads as the NRA Political Victory Fund. Last month, one person placed ads on behalf of the Missouri Republican’s campaign and the PAC with the same television station on the same day, according to the complaint.
The overlap in personnel is strong evidence of coordination between the PAC and the campaign, said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.
His group and Giffords, a gun control group founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who survived a 2011 shooting, filed the complaint Monday night against Hawley’s campaign and the NRA Political Victory Fund.
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Both the NRA and Hawley’s consultants pointed to firewall policies meant to prevent coordination. Fischer anticipated and rejected this argument.
“It’s impossible that an individual employee can create a firewall in his brain,” he said.
Lars Dalseide, a spokesman for the NRA, said in a statement that the Political Victory Fund “is in compliance with all federal election laws. Any suggestion to the contrary is absurd, baseless and categorically false. NRA’s vendors employ firewall policies as required to comply with federal coordination rules.”
Hawley’s campaign pointed to the involvement of a gun control group in the complaint as a reason to be skeptical of the allegations.
“The entity filing this frivolous complaint is Giffords, a national gun control group that opposes the Second Amendment and opposed Justice Kavanaugh,” Kelli Ford, Hawley’s spokeswoman, said in an email, referring to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“Liberal Claire McCaskill’s vote against Justice Kavanaugh has become the most prominent issue in the Senate race this fall, so it’s no wonder this radical anti-gun group is helping McCaskill by filing desperate and frivolous complaints against conservative Josh Hawley and the NRA,” Ford said.
The dispute won’t be resolved before the Nov. 6 general election. It often takes years before the FEC rules on a complaint.
The NRA victory fund has spent more than $1 million on behalf of the Missouri Republican’s campaign against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, in a race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate and has set records for spending by outside groups in the state.
One ad from the NRA attacks McCaskill for voting against President Donald Trump’s nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has been one of the main talking points of Hawley’s campaign.
“The Supreme Court is divided. Our right to self-defense hangs in the balance... But there’s something you can do about it. Josh Hawley will defend our right always,” the ad says.
Federal regulations forbid campaigns and political action committees, which are supposed to stay away from the campaigns themselves, from using the same companies to produce ads or perform other services.
Fischer alleges that Hawley’s campaign and the NRA have tried to circumvent that rule by using vendors that have different names, but operate out of the same addresses and employ the same people.
The complaint against Hawley’s campaign comes a month after the Campaign Legal Center and Giffords filed a similar complaint against Montana GOP Senate candidate Matt Rosendale.
Federal Communications Commission records show that Jon Ferrell placed an ad for Hawley’s campaign with the Springfield, Mo., television station KYTV on Sept. 6, listing himself as an “agent for Josh Hawley for Senate,” according to the complaint.
The same day Ferrell placed a pro-Hawley ad with the same station for the NRA’s Political Victory Fund.
Ferrell’s signature appears on the FCC forms for both ads, McClatchy confirmed. He signed the forms for the NRA ad on behalf of Red Eagle Media Group, an ad placement firm working for the NRA’s victory fund.
But Virginia State Corporation Commission records show that “Red Eagle Media” is a trade name for National Media Research, Planning and Placement, an ad placement firm which Hawley’s campaign paid $45,000 from July through September.
Red Eagle and National Media are “legally indistinguishable,” which indicates the ad buys were coordinated between the campaign and PAC, Fischer said.
“When you have the same person working for the campaign and the outside group, it sure looks like that conduct,” Fischer said.
National Media operates out of the same Virginia address as OnMessage, a GOP consulting firm used by Hawley for both his successful 2016 run for attorney general and since the start of his campaign for Senate.
In addition to the placement of ads, Fischer said there is evidence that the production of ads is also coordinated.
Starboard Strategic, the firm producing pro-Hawley ads on behalf of the NRA’s PAC, shares a Maryland office with OnMessage. Hawley’s consultant, Brad Todd, is a partner in both firms.
“Taken together, these facts suggest an elaborate scheme designed to evade detection of violations of the Commission’s common vendor coordination rules. OnMessage, led by Josh Hawley for Senate’s top campaign consultant, appears to have deliberately routed the NRA PVF’s independent expenditures supporting Hawley through the corporate shell of Starboard, while Hawley’s committee directly contracted with OnMessage,” the complaint states.
The NRA Political Victory Fund has paid Starboard $3.8 million this election cycle for work on multiple Senate races, according to the complaint.
OnMessage’s counsel, Michael Bayes, said in a statement that both firms have a written firewall policy in place for the 2018 cycle to ensure FEC compliance.
“It is entirely permissible for designated employees to handle administrative tasks, like signing checks and contracts, for multiple clients as long as these employees are not part of any strategic decision making involving campaign clients,” Bayes said.