Americans United for Values
In the early fall of 2016, a Super PAC called Americans United for Values (AUV) paid for a 25 billboard campaign in the Cincinnati market. The billboards show the silhouette of a woman, highly evocative of Hillary Clinton, in a shrugging pose. The words “what difference does it make?” hover beside her and below that, four American-flag draped caskets are stacked.
Brian Kinnett, a Grove City pastor and treasurer of the Super PAC, took credit for the billboards in the press. He gave a contemporaneous statement to the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online news website, linking the images to the Benghazi terrorist attacks and sharing his desire that “those in Washington who failed our service men and women” would be held accountable in the election.
Here’s the thing: while the billboards featured the words “Paid for by Americans United for Values” printed in large, clear text at the bottom, the Super PAC didn’t have a dime to pay for them, according to their financy disclosure statements.
It seems worth noting at this point that intentionally filling incorrect paperwork with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is a violation of campaign finance law. And yet the Super PAC’s finances make no allowance for the multi-thousand dollar purchase.
The story of the Americans United for Values Super PAC, incorporated in January 2016 and active through the Georgia Sixth “Vote your Ossoff” special election, is a weird one, wending its way through one of the largest scandals to rock the Ohio GOP in recent years and even stumbling into the marginalia of the Trump-Russia scandal.
Ohio sits at a strange crossroads. It is a hub of far right, often Evangelical-aligned political strategy shops and it’s also a major node in the web of dark Republican money that has penetrated American elections since the Citizens United decision. Plunderbund has reported before on the Ohio Dark Money Plexus (ODMP). The ODMP has a few central players:
- David Langdon, of Langdon Law, West Chester
- Tom Norris, Cap City Solutions, Columbus
- Joel Riter, Too many to list, Cleveland originally, now Washington and Columbus
- James Nathanson, James S. Nathanson & Associates, Dayton
Today we will add two more: Rex Elsass and Nick Everhart.
The Strategy Group for Media in Delaware, Ohio is a powerhouse media consultancy group, headed by Rex Elsass, that caters to arch conservative, Evangelical-friendly politicians. They have counted Ted Cruz and Mike Pence as clients in the past.
A rival organization, Creative Content Media/Medium Buying, also operates out of Columbus and is helmed by Nick Everhart, who was once a rising start at SGM before his very public and messy ouster from the firm. The head of SGM accused Everhart of staging a corporate coup and had him successfully prosecuted for a felony (stealing company property). Both men profess to be devout, born again Christians.
David Langdon is Americans United for Values’ lawyer and he doesn’t shy away from the pet issues of the religious right either. He authored the Ohio Definition of Marriage, Amendment 1 (2004), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman in the State of Ohio. When the Supreme Court struck it down in Obergefell v. Hodges, it legalized same sex marriage in the United States. These dark money groups and affiliated consultants keep a low profile, but their impact on American society has been profound. They have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to skirt election law if it advances their policy goals.
In January 2016, Americans United for Values transferred $126,900 to Nick Everhart’s company Medium Buying. They bought 60-second radio ads to run during the Iowa Caucus, which encouraged voters to question the sincerity of Ted Cruz’s Christian faith. At the time, Everhart’s old mentor/bitter rival’s company SGM was managing the communications piece of Cruz’s Presidential bid.
Those January ad buys were financed entirely by one 501 (c) 4 called the American Policy Coalition (APC) (formerly Bluegrassvotes.org), which contributed $127,000 to AUV between January 19-21, 2016. David Langdon is APC’s treasurer. After January, the Super PAC had no activity through August, but when it revived in September (long after Cruz had suspended his campaign), things went off the rails. Here is a timeline of events:
|Americans United for Values PAC Running Balance January – October, 2016|
|1/18/2016||Americans United for Values is organized||$ –|
|1/19 & 1/21||American Policy Coalition donates||$ 127,000.00||$ 127,000.00|
|1/20/2016||AUV pays Medium Buying, LLC to produce Anti-Ted Cruz ads to air during Iowa Caucus||$ (126,900.00)||$ 100.00|
|9/15/2016||Congressional Leadership Fund donates to AUV||$ 85,000.00||$ 85,100.00|
|9/26/2016||AUV pays Clark Fork Group||$ (80,000.00)||$ 5,100.00|
|10/13/2016||Clark Fork Group “refunds” AUV||$ 79,000.00||$ 84,100.00|
|10/13/2016||AVU donates to Fighting for Ohio fund||$ (80,000.00)||$ 4,100.00|
|10/13/2016||A Public Voice, Inc. (first reported at American Policy Coalition) donates to AVU||$ 90,000.00||$ 94,100.00|
|10/13/2016||AVU donates to Indiana Republican State Committee, Inc.||$ (90,000.00)||$ 4,100.00|
|10/27/2016||AVU files a Pre-General report w/FEC listing 10/13 donation as from American Policy Coalition||n/a||n/a|
|10/31/2016||AVU files an amended Pre-General report reattributing 10/13 donation to A Public Voice, Inc.||n/a||n/a|
|Various small withdrawals throughout the year||$ (80.00)||$ 4, 020.00|
|11/30/2016||AUV pays Langdon Law||$ (4,020.00)||$ 0.00|
After the purchase of Anti-Cruz ads AUV had a balance of $100, which it carried through the summer. On September 15, Congressional Leadership Fund donated $85,000 to AUV. The Congressional Leadership Fund is a Super PAC linked at one time to John Boehner and states that its mission is “exclusively dedicated to protecting and strengthening the Republican Majority in the House of Representatives.”
Shortly after, AUV paid Clark Fork Group $80,000 for “print advertising” (this can be found on the memo of the FEC filing). This transaction could have represented the funding for the billboard purchase, except that on October 13, Clark Fork Group refunded all but $1,000 back to AUV (the memo says: “partial refund of 9/26/16 advertising expense”). On the same day, a Dark Money group donated $90,000 to AVU and then AUV turned right back around and donated $80,000 to the Rob Portman-aligned Fighting for Ohio PAC. The same day, AUV also donated $90,000 to the Indiana Republican State Committee, Inc. A few weeks later, on October 27, they filed a Pre-General report listing the $90,000 donation as being from American Policy Coalition. Four days later, they filed an amended Pre-General report, reattributing the donation to A Public Voice, Inc.
American Policy Coalition, as a pass through, had entirely funded the Anti-Cruz ad buys in January, so its not clear why the $90,000 donation had to be routed through a different organization – A Public Voice, Inc. – in October. The two organizations are connected to each other. Corporate filings with the Ohio Secretary of State shows that A Public Voice, Inc is being administered by Langdon Law in West Chester. David Langdon is also listed as the treasurer of the American Policy Coalition. In late November, the Super PAC transferred the remainder of its balance ($4,020) to David Langdon’s firm, Langdon Law, drawing their account to zero.
If Kinnett told the Washington Free Beacon the truth and the disclaimer on the billboard itself was not a false statement, it certainly seems as though AUV omitted a donation from its FEC filings. There are a few other scenarios that could be true: the Clark Fork Group may have paid for the billboards (less $1,000 from AUV) or another individual may have paid for them. An FEC search of Independent Expenditures made between 9/26/2016 and 10/23/2016 does not reveal any ad buys that would match the description of a 25 billboard buy in the Cincinnati market.
It is possible that whoever paid for the billboards intended to exploit the semantics of the FEC guidance around Independent Expenditures to avoid filing with the FEC. An individual is free to spend unlimited amounts on advertising that is not of a political nature, as it falls within the confines of free speech but political expenditures, on the other hand, need to be reported to the FEC within 48 hours. FEC guidance requires the candidate to be “clearly identified” and to be expressly advocating the election or defeat of one or more candidates. The billboard contains only a silhouette that is highly suggestive of Hillary Clinton but not her image or name and according to the contemporary press statements, it was intended to raise awareness of Benghazi. This is of course, too clever by half, because the desired outcome of the billboard is clearly to discourage a voter from voting for Clinton – an obvious dogwhistle.
Setting aside the disclosure issue, there is still no explanation of how they paid for the ad buy. The area manager of a billboard company in the Cincinnati market estimated that a 25 billboard buy would cost $12,500 at minimum and another $10,000 to print the billboards. The FEC has the capability to subpoena witnesses and documents if they believe campaign finance law has been broken but without access to that type of information, Plunderbund can only point out coincidences and speculate on possible explanations for the unusual nature of AUV’s transactions in the fall of 2016.
A Plausable Timeline
From the timeline, it seems clear that AUV initially paid Clark Fork with the donation from the Congressional Leadership Fund, and yet, Plunderbund believes, that the $85,000 donation was ultimately intended for Fighting for Ohio PAC, although there is no way to draw a clean line from a contribution to a disbursement once it has been pooled in the coffers of a Super PAC. Fighting for Ohio PAC is a Rob Portman aligned SuperPAC that spent millions of Ohio Dark Money in the 2016 Ohio Senate race. If AUV had reason to obfuscate the true destination of the other donation, throwing this Congressional Leadership Fund donation in as spoiler could achieve that purpose.
The same day that AUV donated to the Portman aligned PAC, they accepted another $90,000 from A Public Voice, Inc (originally filed as American Policy Coalition). That same day, it transferred the same amount to the Indiana Republican State Committee, Inc. The FEC filings specified the money as a non federal contribution, a designation that means the funds have to be spent on state and local races. Plunderbund consulted Dr. Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School with a focus on state and local government law and government ethics, to ask why an Ohio-centric Super PAC would make a non-federal contribution to another state’s Republican Party campaign finance arm. He pointed out that different states may have different contribution limits, and the Super PAC may have been attempting a kind of donation “arbitrage”.
It is true that Indiana does not limit the amount of money a Federal PAC may donate to state committees, whereas in Ohio, the Super PAC’s donation would have been capped at $10,000. Indiana campaign finance documents show that the same day the Indiana Republican State Committee, Inc. received the $90,000 contribution on October 13, it paid the Atlanta-based direct mail company Paces Direct, LLC $87,876.92 for a direct mail campaign.
What’s interesting about Paces Direct LLC is that Georgia-native and dark money king pin Nick Ayers disclosed that he had consulted for this company when he became Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff. Additionally, according to analysis by Politico, Ayers was paid almost $40,000 between August 2016 and March 2017, by Eric Holcomb’s Indiana Gubernatorial Campaign (he entered the race after Pence accepted the Vice-Presidential nomination). A non federal contribution to the Indiana Republican State Committee, Inc. could have been allocated to Holcomb expenses, such as a direct mail campaign, for which Ayers could have collected a consultation fee. Ayers and the president of Paces Direct, LLC, Marshall Klein, have worked on campaigns together before.
On that same financial disclosure form, Ayers also disclosed that he had done work for Clark Fork Group, the same entity that was paid $90,000 by AUV on September 26 and then refunded almost all of it on October 13.
The Clark Fork Group appears to be some kind of advertising company, based on the memos from AUV’s FEC filings, which describes the purpose of the first ($80,000) disbursement as for “Advertising – print” and this trademark application, which describes them as providing “digital advertising services.”
Curioser and curiouser…
Please stay tuned for the second part of this two-part series
Danielle Harlow is a Social Scientist living in Columbus. She won Jeopardy! once. Follow her on twitter at @TiberisDonors.
twitter at @TiberisDonors.