Firearms Security Group files alleging NRA coordinated with Ron Johnson and Josh Hawley campaigns
Two National Rifle Association affiliates have made up to $ 35 million in illegal campaign contributions, in the form of coordinated communications efforts, to GOP Senate campaigns from Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Josh Hawley of Arkansas , Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, as well as the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump and U.S. Representative Matt Rosendale, according to a trial, filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia by the gun safety organization Giffords.
The lawsuit alleges that the gun rights group used shell companies to unduly assist Republican lawmakers in 2018.
The NRA Political Victory Fund, a political action committee, and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action spent millions on allegedly independent political advertising for the six Senate candidates and Trump during the 2014, 2016 and 2018 federal election cycles, according to the pursuit.
The Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan campaign fundraising group, represents Giffords, a gun security group founded by former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), in part to counter NRA influence in national politics.
Under a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling, outside groups are allowed to spend unlimited sums on political speech, including advertisements in favor of candidates.
But federal campaign finance rules require that such ads be commissioned without campaign coordination. Coordinated messages count as an in-kind contribution.
Political Action Committees are subject to a limit of $ 5,000 per cycle on contributions, including in-kind contributions, to a single candidate. Businesses are not allowed to spend Treasury funds on coordinated messages on behalf of political candidates.
The lawsuit accuses the NRA and the campaigns of using the same political messaging companies to disguise coordinated campaign activity as independent advertising.
The NRA paid Starboard Strategic Inc., a company based in Virginia and Maryland, for the advertising in favor of the candidates. The applicants paid a company called OnMessage which the lawsuit said is “functionally indistinguishable” from Starboard.
“They are headed by the same people and located at the same address, and no separation or internal firewalls exist between the staff who work for each entity,” said the lawsuit. âOnMessage has been nominated and accepted industry awards for [NRA] advertisements contracted via Starboard.
The companies the lawsuit alleges are actually a company operating under two names, and then coordinated to create and place complementary ads – exactly the kind of coordination that is not supposed to be allowed between campaigns and outside groups.
“By falsely claiming that their ad spending was independent, NRA affiliates dodged [federal] contribution limits, source bans and disclosure requirements, âthe Campaign Legal Center said in a statement.
OnMessage had previously sparked controversy in Missouri after the Kansas City Star revealed that shortly after Hawley was sworn in as state attorney general in 2017, he brought in consultants from the firm who would lead his campaign in the Senate in its official office to help lead taxpayers. staff funded.
A report released by the state auditor’s office in 2020 was unable to conclusively say whether the deal violated the law as state affairs were conducted using emails and private SMS.
During the 2018 campaign, Rosendale appeared to publicly confirm that his campaign was coordinating with the NRA, according to the lawsuit. During a fundraiser on July 18, 2018, Rosendale said that the political director of the NRA Institute of Legal Affairs, Chris Cox, would incur expenses to support Rosendale, then described precisely the content and the timeline. ads run weeks later, depending on the mix.
The lawsuit says Rosendale agreed to up to $ 383,196 in coordinated expenses. Hawley accepted up to $ 973,196, according to the lawsuit.
The bulk of the illegal spending – $ 25 million of the alleged $ 35 million in total – went to Trump’s campaign in 2016, according to the lawsuit.
Although the lawsuit names only Hawley and Rosendale, other questions regarding the other candidates named in the lawsuit could be addressed by the Federal Election Commission, the federal body regulating campaign finance violations. The FEC keeps the proceedings secret while they are in progress.
The lawsuit arose out of an administrative proceeding at the FEC that Giffords initiated in April 2019, but the commission – long ridiculed as a toothless regulator – took no action.
A September court order gave the agency 30 days to act. If the agency did not act, Giffords would be allowed under the order to take the case to civil court. The FEC has not acted since this court order.
Because the original complaint was filed in 2019, it did not cover the 2020 election, when Rosendale, Tillis, Gardner, Cotton, and Trump all ran for federal election again.
NRA representatives Hawley, Rosendale, Tillis, Johnson and Gardner did not respond to messages seeking comment on Friday.
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