This is the second part of “The Ohio Dark Money Blows Its Cover” series.
A recent lawsuit appears to have disclosed the identities of some of the Washington power brokers behind the dark money that has flooded Ohio elections since Citizens United. The lawsuit, brought by Larry Householder, accuses several defendants of making false and defamatory statements through the medium of political attack ads. The lawsuit names Conservative Alliance PAC, GRP Buying, that company’s owner Nick Everhart as defendants; it also names several individuals associated with the American Conservative Union (ACU). These ACU-affiliated individuals have denied involvement with the attack ads and have claimed that Carl White, a person affiliated with a Cleveland-area radio station, added incorrect information to FCC compliance documentation, causing them to be inaccurately named as parties to the SuperPAC.
In part 1 of this series, Plunderbund made a strong case that these ACU-affiliated individuals are, in fact, connected to the SuperPAC that bought the attack ads and that their denials are misleading. White’s LinkedIn profile shows that he is both an FCC compliance guru and partners in a business with Donna Wiesner Keene, wife of the former ACU president David Keene. It appears that the ACU is in some kind of partnership with Ohio Dark Money groups. Voters of all parties should have questions about why a group of consummate beltway insiders would meddle with Ohio statehouse elections. More troubling, the “foreign entanglements” of some of the players invite questions about the true source and nature of the dark money group’s funding.
The interconnections between the American Conservative Union and Nick Everhart and his company, GRP Buying, probably trace back to the political campaigns of Ron and Rand Paul. Everhart worked at the Delaware, Ohio based Republican public affairs firm Strategy Group for Media (SGM) with Rand Paul’s wife Kelley Paul. SGM consulted for Ron Paul’s presidential run in 2008 and Rand Paul’s 2010 Senate bid. SGM also consulted for Paul’s 2016 presidential run, but by that time, Everhart had left SGM to start his own media production and ad buying companies: Creative Content Media, Medium Buying and GRP Buying.
Everhart openly identifies as the owner of Creative Content Media and Medium Buying, which were incorporated under his name in Ohio. However, GRP Buying’s ownership structure is murkier. It was incorporated in Delaware and described in a Mother Jones article as “shadowy”. GRP Buying ran pro-Trump ads during the 2016 Iowa caucus, under the direction of a Pro-Trump SuperPAC called Great America PAC, which was run by ACU-connected individuals like Dan Backer, Amy Kremer and Jesse Benton.
Kremer participated with former ACU president David Keene on a CPAC Crusie, which the Washington Times described as “a love boat for conservatives”. Backer and Wiesner Keene both worked for a political group called TeaParty.net, that seemed to be more about soliciting donations and building email lists than small government. Dan Backer was treasurer of the TeaParty.net Leadership Fund, the group’s affiliated SuperPAC, while Weisner Keene served as its “Washington liaison”.
Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter – that is, he is married to Rand Paul’s niece – and also served as Rand Paul’s campaign manager during Paul’s 2010 Senate Race, while Everhart was still at SGM working on that campaign. Benton was convicted of bribing an Iowa state senator to switch his endorsement from Michele Bachman to Ron Paul in the 2012 Presidential Election and then was caught in a sting operation in 2016 by the Telegraph, agreeing to funnel 2 million dollars into Great America PAC from fictitious Chinese investors. He assured the fictitious donor that “he would obtain ‘influence’ if Mr. Trump made it to the White House”.
The Paul family has deep and longstanding ties to David Keene, outside of the confines of the ACU. In 2007, David Keene partnered with Bob Barr, Bruce Fein and Richard Viguerie to form a libertarian-oriented coalition called the American Freedom Agenda (AFA), which demanded that the Republican Party return to its traditional mistrust of concentrated government power. Paul was championed by that group, which also supported his father, Ron Paul. Ron Paul even introduced a bill to Congress called the American Freedom Agenda Act of 2007. In 2014, Rand Paul worked with AFA’s Bruce Fein to craft the language for a class-action lawsuit, which Paul brought against the NSA for alleged wiretap abuses.
Additionally, in 2014 Rand Paul added two advisors to his foreign policy team with extensive ties to the Russian government: Richard Burt and Dimitri Simes. These two men also serve on the board of directors of the Center for the National Interest (CNI), alongside David Keene. CNI was the host of Trump’s now-infamous foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel, in which Jeff Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a decision which likely forced Sessions’ recusal.
Keene and Alan Gottlieb (listed as an “at Large” member on the FCC compliance document) are also key figures in the unfolding investigation of how American gun rights groups, like the NRA (of which Keene is a former President) and the Second Amendment Foundation (of which Gottlieb is the current President) were infiltrated by the Russian government and may have been used as a conduit to funnel foreign money into American elections. Keene and Gottlieb have traveled to Russia on multiple occasions to support Putin crony Alexander Torshin’s gun rights group, “The Right to Bear Arms.” Keene is purportedly the person who convinced current National Security Adviser John Bolton, to record a pro-gun rights video in 2013 which aired in Russia. Torshin purportedly also attended Keene’s “small” birthday party in 2016, which occurred during the NRA’s annual meeting in Louisville, KY. McClatchy reports that NRA is under FBI investigation for potentially funneling Russian money into American elections. NPR reports that Torshin has been courting conservatives since at least 2009.
Knowingly accepting money from foreign nationals is a violation of campaign finance law, yet it’s a theme that keeps coming up when the defendants in Householder’s lawsuit are examined with any rigor. Definitively tying the Ohio Dark Money to the ACU would go a long way to understanding their motivations and potentially who their real funders are. Though there is an extremely strong circumstantial case connecting the ACU to Ohio Dark Money, there is no smoking gun. Or rather, the FCC compliance document is the smoking gun, but the ACU disclaims that document’s accuracy.
It’s undeniable that all these players know each other and have worked together on various political projects and endeavors in the past. But of course, that doesn’t mean they’re collaborating on the anti-Householder campaign right now. It all comes down to whether you believe that the head of FCC political compliance for Clear Channel radio for 23 years decided, on own his initiative, to add incorrect and shoddily researched information to an FCC compliance form. Even though its likely he knew the FCC had fined Sinclair Media millions of dollars for incomplete sponsor identification just three months prior. Even though he was also business partners of the wife of a former president of the ACU and the ACU is known to have worked with Ohio Dark Money in prior election cycles. After all that, if you still believe the ACU’s denials, then I have a bridge to sell you. No, actually, I have some radio airtime to sell you, but first, we have to fill out a little paperwork.
Danielle Harlow is a Social Scientist living in Columbus, OH, who won a game of Jeopardy! once. Follow her on twitter at @tiberisdonors.