Campaign finance law allows outside groups like the NRA to make unlimited expenditures supporting candidates only if the expenditures are completely independent of those candidates. To protect this independence, the FEC has rules prohibiting coordination between outside groups and campaigns, which include restrictions on how a vendor may work for both a candidate and an outside group supporting that candidate. Otherwise, the common vendor can act as a conduit to funnel strategic information to the outside group, and then that group’s expenditures are no longer independent.
But a set of media firms operating out of a single set of buildings in Alexandria, Virginia has functioned to help the NRA evade these rules. Evidence shows that a media firm called OnMessage set up a shell corporation called Starboard, located at the same address and with the same leadership; the NRA contracted with Starboard to produce its ads, and the candidates the NRA supported hired OnMessage. Then, both the NRA and the candidates it supported placed their ads through the media firm National Media or an affiliate; in some cases, the same employee placed ads for both the NRA and the candidates the NRA supported on the same day. This scheme appears designed to evade detection of violations of the laws governing independence between campaigns and outside groups and, in doing so, facilitated tens of millions of dollars in illegal, unreported contributions from the NRA to seven federal campaigns.
In partnership with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, CLC filed four FEC complaints in 2018 that alleged illegal coordination between the NRA and seven federal campaigns via these vendors. Detailing the years-long activities of two overlapping webs of shell companies that designed and placed millions worth of ads for the NRA and the NRA’s endorsed campaigns, the complaints shine a light on an elaborate coordination scheme.
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.” The vendors may attempt to claim they established firewalls segregating work for the NRA and campaigns, but that argument falls apart when the same employees are placing ads for both groups.
The NRA using inside information about a candidate’s strategy to create ‘independent’ ads supporting him creates an unfair advantage, and it violates the law. According to the Supreme Court, groups like the NRA can only make unlimited expenditures if they are independent of the candidates they support, and it falls to the FEC to enforce the laws that preserve that independence and prevent corruption.
If the NRA’s ads are coordinated, then the law treats the spending on those ads as in-kind contributions to the candidate, which means those contributions should be reported—and capped—as such. It is up to the FEC to enforce the law.