In 2018, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Giffords filed four separate administrative complaints with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that the National Rifle Association (NRA) violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by using a series of shell corporations to make millions of dollars of unreported contributions to at least seven federal candidates since 2014.
The political and media consulting firm OnMessage set up a shell corporation called Starboard. According to their incorporation documents, the firms not only share an address, but share the same leadership. OnMessage has also taken credit for advertisements contracted through Starboard, including accepting and promoting industry awards for ads created by Starboard.
The NRA contracts with Starboard to produce advertisements in support of federal candidates. At the same time, the candidates contract with OnMessage for their own media and advertising needs.
Both the NRA and the candidates it supported place their ads through a media firm called National Media. To further hide this coordination, the NRA ads are typically placed under a separate trade name used by National Media called Red Eagle, while the candidate ads are typically placed by National Media affiliate American Media and Advocacy Group. There are several instances the same employee placed ads for both the NRA and the candidates the NRA supported, and in some cases ads were placed for both groups by the same employee on the same day.
This scheme appears designed to evade detection of violations of the laws governing coordination between campaigns and outside groups and, in doing so, facilitated as much as $35 million in illegal, unreported contributions from the NRA to at least seven federal campaigns.
The FEC regulates the use of common vendors for media placement because the targeting of political ads is a critical element of a campaign effort. If the NRA possessed inside knowledge of these campaigns’ strategies thanks to common vendors, it could strategically time and target its ads to complement the campaigns’ own efforts.
That would make the expenditures anything but “independent.” Vendors that work for both candidates and outside groups may be able to comply with federal election law by establishing a firewall segregating employees who work for outside groups from those who work for campaigns, and ensuring that information is not shared between the two sides. No such firewall exists, however, when the same employees are placing ads for both the NRA and the candidates the NRA supports.
Through the shell company scheme described above, the NRA used inside information about candidates’ media and advertising strategy to create and place supposedly ‘independent’ ads supporting those candidates. This coordination creates an unfair advantage for the candidates, and violates the law. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, groups like the NRA can only make unlimited expenditures if they are truly independent of the candidates they support. It falls to the FEC to enforce the laws that preserve that independence and prevent corruption.