How Is Gabby Giffords Being A Hero Today?
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords is kicking ass and taking names in a lawsuit filed this week against the National Rifle Association. In it, her eponymous non-profit alleges that the NRA engaged in a years-long scheme to violate campaign finance laws by illegally coordinating ad spending with the campaigns of President Donald Trump and Senators Josh Hawley, Thom Tillis, Cory Gardner, Matt Rosendale, Tom Cotton, and Ron Johnson. The complaint, first flagged by the Daily Beast, points to $35 million in illegal expenditures and demands that the court assess that amount as a fine payable to Uncle Sam.
But why isn't the Federal Election Commission bringing this suit, you are asking? Yes, you are very wise! And the answer is that Republicans really don't want there to be any cops on the beat policing campaign finance, so Trump left the FEC without a quorum between July and December 2020, i.e. during the election. Also, Republicans hate campaign finance laws, and they make sure to deadlock votes on any serious enforcement action. And so it was hardly surprising that when Giffords (the organization, not the hero) filed four FEC complaints in 2018 and 2019 alleging that the NRA had engaged in massive violations of campaign finance law, nothing happened.
Then Giffords sued the FEC in April of 2019 demanding that the agency get off its ass and make a determination as to the merits of the claim. And still nothing. The parties went back and forth with US District Judge Emmet Sullivan getting madder and madder until this week when he'd finally had enough, issuing an order Monday deputizing Giffords to sue the NRA itself. Which is exactly what it did, filing this complaint on Tuesday in coordination with the Campaign Legal Center. And because it's designated a "related case," it's on Judge Sullivan's docket. Ha ha ha.
The complaint is a bit complicated, but in essence it alleges that the well-known media company OnMessage developed a sham alter-ego known as Starboard to make it appear that the NRA wasn't coordinating ad spending with the campaigns themselves in violation of election law. The NRA would route its ad buys through Starboard, while the campaigns would pay OnMessage, but the two entities were functionally indistinguishable, even sharing addresses in Alexandria, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland.
OnMessage, together with Starboard, acts as a single common vendor for advertising content development and media strategy. Similarly, National Media, together with Red Eagle and AMAG, acts as a single common vendor for advertising placement and strategy. Using the OnMessage/Starboard and the National Media/Red Eagle/AMAG common vendor schemes, the NRA has engaged in an ongoing effort to conceal up to $35 million in contributions to at least seven candidates for federal office since 2014.
"Beyond some Starboard-labeled thumb-drives lying around, I don't recall anything within our office that was called or associated with Starboard," one former employee told reporters from The Trace and Politico.
The ad buys were allegedly funneled through similarly twinned sub-vendors, with Starboard routing the NRA's money through a company called Red Eagle (subtle!), and OnMessage spending campaign money through a company called AMAG. But Red Eagle and AMAG were affiliates of a company called National Media, according to the complaint.
Here's a graphic from the suit:
Federal law prohibits campaigns from coordinating with the PACs, which are not subject to campaign finance limits. And while that prohibition is honored somewhat more in the breach than in the observance, what the NRA did here seems especially brazen. The campaigns were able to tap almost unlimited funds from the NRA and coordinate a massive ad campaign using unregulated dollars.
From Politico and The Trace in 2018:
Two former FEC chairs, one Republican and the other Democrat, reviewed the findings of Politico Magazine and The Trace, and said they found them troubling. "This evidence raises substantial questions about whether OnMessage and Starboard Strategic were used as conduits for coordination between the NRA and the candidates it was supporting," Trevor Potter, the Republican, said. "It's pretty serious," added Ann Ravel, the Democrat. "It doesn't seem right." Both former chairs independently came to the same conclusion: "The FEC should investigate."
But of course, the FEC did not investigate, which is how we got to where we are today. Presumably Giffords will investigate via discovery, which is perhaps a worse outcome for the NRA than whatever a toothless FEC would have done.
"The NRA has long acted like it is above the law, and it has done so flagrantly in the last several election cycles. This lawsuit demonstrates that the NRA broke the law by illegally coordinating with federal campaigns and funneling millions of dollars to candidates who supported their extremist, deadly agenda," Giffords Law Center Senior Staff Attorney David Pucino said in a press release announcing the suit. "We are suing the NRA to finally hold them accountable for actions that corrupted politicians and undermined our democracy."
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Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.