An investigation by nonprofit journalism group ProPublica has uncovered the identity of one of the secret super PACs funding advertisements attacking U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and promoting his challenger, Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel.
The group is the Government Integrity Fund and is headed by Columbus lobbyist Tom Norris. Norris’ lobbying firm Cap Square Solutions employs former Mandel aide Joe Ritter.
Ritter declined to comment to ProPublica about his role with Norris’ lobbying firm or whether he is involved with the Government Integrity Fund.
The race between Brown and Mandel is considered vital to Republicans who want to take control of the Senate and Democrats who want to hold on to their majority. It has turned into Ohio’s — and the nation’s — most expensive race.
The Associated Press reported in August that outside groups — like the Government Integrity Fund — have spent $15 million supporting Mandel, while similar groups have spent $3 million for Brown.
It’s unknown where the money is coming from because federal regulations and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United case allow the groups to spend unlimited amounts of cash on political ads without disclosing their donors.
Such groups are classified as non-profit “social welfare” groups, which don’t have to release donor information or register with the Federal Election Commission. They’re supposed to be “primarily” engaged in promoting social welfare.
Super PACs aren’t supposed to coordinate with campaigns, but it is common for them to hire politicians’ former aides.
According to ProPublica, Ritter was first hired by Mandel as an aide when the candidate was in the Ohio Legislature. He was then the field director for Mandel’s state treasurer campaign and then became a constituent and executive agency liaison when Mandel won that race. He left the treasurer’s office after six months to work for Norris’ lobbying firm.
Ritter was part of an ethics complaint filed after a Dayton Daily News investigation into Mandel’s practice of hiring former campaign workers for state jobs. Ritter has contested the charges.
Norris' ties to the Government Integrity Fund was discovered by ProPublica through documents filed with Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT. The Federal Communication Commission requires TV stations to keep detailed records about political advertisers.
Nearly two years after she filed the lawsuit, a congresswoman who lost in the March primary election has dropped her legal action against a political opponent.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Miami Township) told The Enquirer today that she decided to drop her defamation lawsuit against Madeira businessman David Krikorian. Schmidt filed the suit in June 2010, and had sought $6.8 million in damages.
Krikorian is claiming victory in the dispute, and told CityBeat the lawsuit was an intimidation tactic by well-funded special interests.
“Her lawsuit was entirely without merit,” Krikorian said. “It was meant to silence and intimidate me and cost me money. It did not work.”
Krikorian ran as an independent against Schmidt in 2008; he unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for the same seat in 2010 and again this year.
During the ‘08 campaign, Krikorian distributed a pamphlet alleging Schmidt had received “blood money” from the Turkish government in return for her opposition to a congressional resolution that declared Turkey had committed genocide against Armenia during a 1915 conflict.
But the lawsuit proved to be Schmidt’s undoing. She received more than $400,000 in free legal assistance from the Turkish Coalition of America to support her suit. In August 2011 the House Ethics Committee ruled that Schmidt received an “impermissible gift” but didn’t “knowingly” violate the law. She was ordered to repay the coalition, which she has yet to do.
Shortly thereafter, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonpartisan watchdog group, dubbed Schmidt as one of the most corrupt members of Congress.
All of the drama took its toll: Schmidt lost the GOP primary earlier this month to challenger Brad Wenstrup. He defeated her 49-43 percent.
“It’s time to move on,” Barrett Brunsman, Schmidt’s spokesman, told The Enquirer today about dropping the lawsuit.
The Turkish Coalition of America was among Schmidt’s top contributors, donating $7,500 to her 2010 reelection campaign through its political action committee, and donating $7,600 to her in 2008.
Schmidt also traveled to Turkey at least twice while in office. The coalition picked up the tab for one of the trips.
Politico reported March 12 that Schmidt was in Washington, D.C., on Election Day, March 6, at a private luncheon with Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan.
“At times, Rep. Jean Schmidt has been closer to Turkish interests than those of her Cincinnati-area constituents,” Politico’s Jonathan Allen wrote. “Never was that proximity problem more telling than on Tuesday, when Republicans denied Schmidt renomination to run for another term.”
When Allen sought comment for the article, Brunsman refused to confirm if the meeting occurred and sent an email that stated, “I think you have lost your way.”
For his part, Krikorian said the experience has taught him that Ohio needs to pass legislation that penalizes lawsuits filed solely to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their opposition. Such a tactic is known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP.
“I think the Ohio Legislature should consider passing an anti-SLAPP statue to prevent these kinds of abuses of the legal process,” he said. “This lawsuit was an attempt to intimidate and silence me by Rep. Schmidt and the Turkish lobby.”
Krikorian apparently lost in the March 6 Democratic primary by just 59 votes to William R. Smith, a virtual unknown from Pike County who didn’t campaign, answer questionnaires or grant interviews. A recount is under way and Krikorian has asked for a federal investigation of Victory Ohio Super PAC, which made robo-calls on Smith’s behalf but isn’t registered with the Federal Election Commission.
Krikorian picked up 14 more votes in Hamilton County on provisional ballots once the results were certified. Meanwhile, Clermont County certifies its results on Tuesday.
A Cincinnati-area state representative is decrying billboards throughout Ohio whose aim, she says, is voter intimidation.
Democratic Rep. Alicia Reece held a news conference Monday morning in front of a billboard that read, “Voter Fraud is a Felony!”
The billboards were paid for “by a private family foundation,” but Reece claims in a news release that the sponsors are essentially anonymous and the billboards are being strategically placed in low-income and black neighborhoods.
“We are asking the Outdoor Advertising Association of Ohio to work with the anonymous sponsors of the billboards to have them removed immediately,” Reece wrote in a statement.
“It’s obvious that the billboards are designed to intimidate voters and leave some wondering if merely voting is now a crime.”
Mike Norton with Norton Outdoor Advertising — the company on whose billboards the ads appear — said there are 30 such signs in the Greater Cincinnati area.
He said the sponsor didn’t ask for any demographic targeting and the ads are appearing in all neighborhoods wherever there was open space.
Norton said the sponsor wished to remain anonymous and he isn’t at liberty to give out its name.
As for the anonymity of the ads sponsor, “Our company’s stand on political advertising is we do our very best to make sure it’s accurate and it’s not an attack ad,” Norton said. “This seemed to fall well within the bounds of reason on both of those benchmarks.”
The billboards are not illegal, and they are considered Constitutionally protected speech.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School issued a policy paper finding that cases of fraud by individual voters are extremely rare.
The center found that in the 2004 presidential election saw a voter fraud rate of 0.00004 percent.
Cincinnati isn’t the only city to see such billboards. They have also made appearances in Cleveland and Columbus, as well as southeast Wisconsin.
According to the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland, the billboards there are owned by Clear Channel Outdoor. A company spokesman told the newspaper that Clear Channel’s policy is usually to identify who sponsors a political ad, but in this case a salesperson made a mistake.
“When we publicly started supporting Obama, we did have a lot of fans that were upset about that and just thought, ‘you should keep your political opinions to yourself,’ ” lead singer Matt Berninger told reporters before their Thursday GottaVote concert sponsored by the Obama campaign.
“And I actually totally understand that and in many ways almost agree. I don’t want to be preached to by the Rock bands that I like.”The band drew a mixed crowd of 750 people to the intimate show at The Emery Theater on Thursday. The concert’s purpose was to encourage attendees to vote for Obama in the Nov. 6 election and encourage Cincinnatians to take advantage of Ohio’s early voting.
[Photo gallery: The National plays in Cincinnati Oct. 4]
CityBeat staff writer Andy Brownfield contributed to this report.
One of Ohio's two U.S. senators says Democrats need to get better organized so they can counteract private conservative groups that secretly draft legislation for Republican lawmakers.
The Porkopolis column in this week's CityBeat features excerpts from an interview with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). As is often the case with print media, there was limited space available and segments of the wide-ranging interview with Brown weren't included in the column.
One of the unused segments included Brown's responses to questions about whether President Obama and Congressional Democrats are aggressive enough in pushing their agenda, and whether the Left needs a group to counteract organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Asked if Democrats at the federal level are too reactive and need to do better at framing and guiding debate on issues, Brown said his party could use some improvement in that regard. He cited the theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th Century essayist and abolitionist.
“I think the Democrats could do better at that, from the president on down,” Brown said. “It's always easier to say no. The one reason (Republicans) do well with message is, by definition almost, of conservative. Emerson talked about the innovators and the conservators. Progressives are the innovators and conservatives are the conservators. By definition, the conservators protect the status quo. Protecting the status quo means 'no,' 'repeal,' 'don't,' and 'not.' Those are simple concepts. Changing things is more complex.”
Also, Brown wishes the media would more clearly articulate what's happening in Washington. During the recent debate on raising the federal debt ceiling, for example, it was Obama and Democrats who were willing to compromise, a fact he believes didn't receive enough attention.
“When one party digs in and is extreme, both parties look bad,” he said. “When people say, 'they all look terrible in Washington,' a big reason for that is Republicans weren't willing to negotiate anything. They were willing to shut the government down if we didn't do things their way.
“We, in the end, want to be responsible,” Brown added. “A bunch of senators were in the White House months ago and Barack Obama said to us, 'I'm the adult and I have to be responsible. They know I'm not going to let the government default.' Well, as long as they know that, it changes things.”
Brown likes the suggestion of Democrats forming their own progressive version of ALEC — the private, corporate-backed group that writes model legislation for state lawmakers, which is funded by the Koch brothers, the National Rifle Association and others.
“That might be a good idea,” he said. “The elections last year were all about job loss. Spending a little bit, but mostly about job loss. Then you look at the three most salient things this state legislature has done, which is roll back collective bargaining rights, voting rights and women's rights.
“Not only is that not solving the problems we really have, which is jobs, it's also injecting divisions into our country and our state that we don't need,” Brown added. “It's made people so angry and hurt so many people's feelings in a really significant way and for what? So they can accomplish a political agenda. That's what is really outrageous.”
An ardent opponent of going to war in Iraq, Brown believes some progressives' fear that Obama will extend the wars there and in Afghanistan beyond the timetables for troop withdrawals is unfounded.
“I'm confident they will be respected and I'm hoping Afghanistan's will be accelerated,” he said. “I think (Obama) will stand on what he said.”
The senator is more ambivalent about U.S. intervention in the uprising in Libya. “I wish the president had been a bit more forthcoming with Congress about our involvement, but people I respect have also said it would've been a real genocide there if the Europeans and we hadn't done something,” Brown said. “It's an awfully difficult call.”
Brown believes extremist actions by the GOP — like restricting collective bargaining rights at the state level, and trying to defund Planned Parenthood and limit access to abortion at the federal level — are out of touch with the mainstream, and will benefit Democrats in next year's elections.
“Voters absolutely see these guys overreaching,” Brown said. “The voters aren't wild about Barack Obama and the Democrats, but they like the Republicans even less.
“They've overreached on Medicare, it's going after Head Start and Planned Parenthood and all the kinds of things there is general consensus about in this country,” he added. “We have general consensus in this country on many things, except the Far Right, on items like the environment, on Medicare, on food safety, on voting rights. These guys have exploded that.”
Josh Mandel avoided directly answering a question about the auto bailout for five straight minutes during a recent meeting with the Youngstown Vindicator editorial board.
In a video released today by Democrats, Mandel, the Republican opponent to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown for Ohio's U.S. senate seat, says he would have “trouble” voting in favor of the federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors. He cites the case of Delphi workers, who lost part of their pensions as part of the deal auto companies made with workers after the federal bailout.
But Mandel, who is also Ohio's treasurer, refused to give a straight answer on whether he would vote for or against the bailout. After five minutes of phrasing the question in different ways, the Vindicator editorial board gave up in clear exasperation.
Mandel had a similar encounter with a WDTN reporter in August. In that encounter, Mandel refused to give a straight answer to the same question. After the reporter pressed the question, Mandel smiled and quipped, “Great seeing you.”
But the dodgy encounters are not Mandel's only problem with the media. Media outlets, including CityBeat, have also criticized Mandel for his dishonest campaign tactics. Cleveland's The Plain Dealer gave Mandel the “Pants on Fire” crown for Mandel's consistently poor scoring on PolitiFact Ohio.
Mandel is currently down in aggregate polling by 4.8 points.
The video of Mandel dodging the Vindicator editorial board's questions can be seen here:
A post on viral web cataloger BuzzFeed accuses U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt or her staff of airbrushing the congresswoman’s Wikipedia page.
BuzzFeed claims that a user bearing the Internet fingerprint shared by all Congressional offices removed the section of Schmidt’s Wikipedia entry titled “The Armenian Genocide issue.”
Schmidt was one of 33 Congress members alleged to have had airbrushing done to their Wikipedia pages.
Also listed was House Speaker John Boehner, who allegedly had mention of his knowledge of the Mark Foley congressional page scandal scrubbed from his page.
CityBeat on Wednesday asked for comment from the offices of Schmidt and Boehner but no response was given.
“The Armenian Genocide issue” section appeared on Schmidt’s page as of Wednesday. It’s unclear whether the section had previously been removed.
According to the entry, Schmidt came under fire in 2008 from congressional challenger David Krikorian for failing to publicly define the mass killing of 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians between 1915-1916 as the “Armenian Genocide.”
The Armenian-American Krikorian accused Schmidt of taking tens of thousands in “blood money” from the Turkish government in order to push the denial. Krikorian’s claims resulted in a defamation lawsuit from Schmidt and a complaint before the House Ethics Committee.
However, Boehner’s page still contained no mention of his knowledge of the Foley page scandal as of Wednesday afternoon.
In 2006 former Republican Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned over reports that he had sent sexually explicit Internet messages to at least one underage male former congressional page.
Boehner told The Washington Post that he had learned of inappropriate “contact” between Foley and a 16-year-old page and told then-House Speaker Dennis Hassert about it. He later told the newspaper that he couldn’t remember whether he talked to Hassert.