I-Team 10 investigation: Anonymous attacks
Posted at: 10/23/2012 6:49 AM
| Updated at: 10/23/2012 6:30 PM
By: Brett Davidsen | WHEC.com
I-Team 10 has tracked down who's behind those mystery political attack ads being mailed to voters by a group trying to influence the outcome of a local political race.
Voters in the 55th State Senate District have received mailers targeting democratic candidate Ted O'Brien. But little was known about who is sending them.
In a blistering direct mail ad voters are being told that O'Brien betrayed women, by siding with a judge accused of sexual harassment.
We showed the mailer to voters in East Rochester.
"It's your typical political slam ad," said Steve Clough. "Just glancing at it, that's the first reaction that comes to mind."
Brett: When you see something like that, does it influence how you vote?
Jean Mercado: "No. It does not."
Negative ads like this one aren't new in bare knuckle campaigns. But these serious attacks can be levied by secret groups who don't have to tell you who they really are.
"We need to know who the people are. it matters, when you're trying to judge your candidates, who is supporting them and who's backing them," said Katherine Smith, Advocacy Chairwoman of the League of Women Voters of Rochester.
The mailers say they are paid for by a group called Common Sense Principles. We wanted to find out more about them....to uncover what their agenda was...but we quickly discovered that would not be an easy task.
We decided to start with the target of the ad.
"It's tough as a candidate, frankly, to absorb a lot of that when you get attacked day after day after day," said O'Brien who says he has no idea who's behind the mailers.
"It was unfortunate to see these groups who don't identify themselves attack me in a way that's been characterized by campaign watchdog groups as drastically exaggerated or outright lies," he said.
His opponent, republican Sean Hanna, likewise, says he doesn't know who is sending the mailers and has repudiated them, saying he is running his own campaign.
"What we do is we plan our campaign, we identify the issues we want to talk about and we go out and we talk about them. That's what we've done, completely straightforward, completely above board," said Hanna.
The mailer bears similarities to a television ad with the same theme. But the TV spots are the work of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national political action committee which is registered with the state of New York and has a donor list that spans the entire united states. A spokesman for that group says they are not aligned with Common Sense Principles.
So we investigated the Virginia return address on the mailer but discovered it was a mail box at a UPS Store.
Certainly we could learn more about this PAC through its filings at the NYS Board of Elections. But that was another dead-end as Common Sense Principles has not filed with the state.
So how can this shadow organization spend thousands of dollars injecting itself into a local political campaign without disclosing who is funding the attacks? We found a loop hole in the state law that allows them to remain a mystery.
According to the Board of Elections regulations, groups that spend money expressly advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate have to file with the state. Because the O'Brien mailer doesn't include specific language like "vote," "oppose," "support' or "elect.," the sender is legally sidestepping those requirements.
"This now clouds it to a degree unlike anything I've ever seen before in my years in politics," said Monroe County Democratic Chairman Joe Morelle.
Back to our efforts to track down who is behind Common Sense Principles. The organization has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. All of them actively take shots at O'Brien (as well as two other candidates running for state office downstate).
We tried leaving messages on those sites but never got any response.
But late Tuesday we uncovered last year's tax forms for Common Sense, listed as a not-for-profit based in suburban Richmond, Virginia.
It's stated mission is "advocating smaller government and sound tax and budget policies."
And listed as the director is Christopher LaCivita.
LaCivita is a republican strategist who has worked on many national campaigns and reportedly advised the Swift Boat Veterans during the 2004 presidential campaign.
I-Team 10 called him and asked him his interest in this local state senate race .... but he declined comment.
The emergence of anonymous, but legal, attack ads is leading to calls from democrats and republicans to look at legislation that would require more disclosure and create more transparency. Until then, voters have no choice but to guess the sender's motives.