AP pulls back curtain on coordination between Ernst aides, dark money

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst introduced a potential major donor to one of her campaign's fundraisers, who later asked that person for a "an investment of $50,000" in a dark money group backing Ernst's re-election, Brian Slodysko reported for the Associated Press on December 6.

Slodysko's scoop uncovered what may be illegal coordination between the Ernst campaign and the Iowa Values group, which can accept unlimited contributions without disclosing donors.

It wasn't the first time Ernst's campaign ventured into a gray area.

The AP story is a must-read in its entirety. The practices Slodysko describes are probably widespread, but documentary evidence is rare.

Among other things, Slodysko shed light on one of Washington's revolving doors: the tendency for staff to work simultaneously or alternately for political campaigns and outside groups geared toward influencing elections. Here are a few key sections related to Claire Holloway Avella, who raises money for both the senator's campaign and the Iowa Values organization:

In July, Holloway Avella requested “an investment of $50,000” from a donor after Ernst made an introduction. She made clear in an email, which was obtained by the AP, how much a contribution of that size could help.

“As a follow up to our introduction by Senator Ernst, I am reaching out to you on behalf of Iowa Values,” she wrote.

“As you may have seen, an outside group on the left ... recently launched a six-figure ad buy in media markets across the state attacking Senator Ernst on her vote to repeal Obamacare,” she continued. “The purpose of our group, Iowa Values, is to push back against these type of negative attacks.”

Separately, a strategy memo states the group will use door-knocking, as well as TV, radio and digital advertising, to build a “firewall” that could be the difference “between winning and losing in 2020 for Senator Ernst.” The group is targeting about 120,000 Iowans who “lean Republican on the issues” but abandon the party at times over “the tone of the GOP.”

Slodysko found no consensus among campaign finance experts about whether these practices cross the legal line. Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center saw “'pretty strong evidence' that the $50,000 request was for an 'illegal donation,'" as well as a possible violation of the Iowa Values tax-exempt status. Printed materials say the mission of Iowa Values "is to educate the public about common-sense solutions to various public policy issues of national importance"--standard boilerplate language for organizations whose real purpose is mostly to help elect politicians from one party.

On the other hand, former Federal Election Commission attorney Dan Petalas thought the $50,000 ask was allowable, because Holloway Avella wasn't soliciting it directly for the Ernst campaign.

Former FEC general counsel Larry Noble, who later worked at the Campaign Legal Center, described the practice as "really questionable.” I sought further comment from Noble, who replied by e-mail,

I think this clearly raises questions and warrants an investigation. The problem is the way the FEC has gutted enforcement of the independence requirement. The solicitation of the contribution may be a violation of the soft money ban.

The "soft money ban" was part of the 2002 campaign finance law commonly known as McCain-Feingold. It "places a cap on individual contributions to political parties even if the money is to be spent on something other than federal elections."

The FEC hasn't been able to process cases on its enforcement docket for more than three months, lacking a quorum of commissioners. So even if Ernst's campaign staff have been breaking the law, with the senator's involvement, no one can be held accountable for the foreseeable future. Noble explained,

It takes four commissioners to vote to initiate an investigation. All the staff can do is notify the respondents of the complaint. The respondents can file a response. But no investigation can begin without a commission finding of reason to believe a violation has occurred.

As Noble mentioned, even a functional FEC wouldn't necessarily view this set of facts as illegal coordination, given the commission's narrow interpretation of the law. Noble raised the same point in October, when I asked him about the Ernst campaign paying the America Rising Corporation $26,000 for “survey/research" services. That company is linked to the America Rising super-PAC, which has video trackers following some of Ernst’s Democratic challengers.

I have always suspected that strategists for Ernst illegally coordinated with the 501(c)4 group Priorities for Iowa in March 2014. When facing a self-funding Republican rival, the nearly-broke Ernst campaign placed a small buy on Des Moines cable television more than two months before the 2014 primary. The timing was perfect: her debut ad "Squeal" just happened to reach viewers (and generate massive free media coverage) on the same day Priorities for Iowa released the devastating Bruce Braley "farmer from Iowa" video.

It would be difficult to prove Ernst campaign insiders planned that sequence of events, though, in the absence of e-mail correspondence similar to what Slodysko obtained.

Democratic-aligned groups including EMILY's List and End Citizens United denounced Ernst soon after the AP published its story. Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price slammed what he called the senator's "blatantly illegal and self-serving conduct." Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield said in a statement,

This is political corruption, plain and simple, and Senator Ernst owes Iowa families a thorough explanation for her illegal tactics, [...] Senator Ernst isn’t just counting on her personal dark money group to spend unlimited secret money in this race, she’s breaking the rules to ensure they’re operating to bail out her struggling campaign. Iowans deserve leaders they can trust, and Senator Ernst’s self-serving conduct represents the worst of Washington politics and a clear betrayal of her constituents.

Democratic Senate candidate Michael Franken posted on Twitter,

We all know Senator Ernst is a pawn for special interests, but now she's not even hiding in the shadows. She's taking dark money and acting on behalf of those donors in broad daylight for all to see.

Another Democratic candidate, Eddie Mauro, released the following statement:

For someone who said she was going to "make them squeal," it appears Joni Ernst is far more interested in bringing home the bacon. Power, foreign influence and money have corrupted our democracy. When I take office in 2020, I will immediately push for legislation to ban Leadership PACs, regulate "social welfare organizations" engaging in campaign activity, and promote a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. These organizations pay no taxes, yet participate in our elections. Enough is enough.

Incidentally, Mauro launched his campaign's first television commercial on December 5. Bleeding Heartland will cover that spot and other IA-Sen developments in a forthcoming post.

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