Murky Group Spends Hundreds of Thousands against Obama and Clinton

March 24, 2008 11:44 am

This election is sure to see its share of attack groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But while most of the attention will be on the billionaire-backed attack organizations, there are also sure to be a number of smaller groups operating under the radar.

A group called the Republican Majority Campaign is a good example. Since January, the group has disclosed spending a total of $350,000 on phone calls against both of the Democratic presidential nominees. The FEC filings show a number of expenditures in equal amounts on the same day against both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama throughout February and March. It’s an oddly unfocused strategy and one that the group declines to describe publicly in any detail.

But that’s not all that’s curious about the group. It’s operations resemble those of groups formerly run by Linda Chavez and Christopher Gersten, although those associated with the group deny any connection with Chavez and Gersten.

Chavez, a former Reagan administration official and President Bush’s one-time nominee for Secretary of Labor (derailed by the revelation she’d housed an illegal immigrant), and Gersten, a former Bush administration official, ran a stable of conservative political action committees together for many years. But that stopped not long after a front-page Washington Post story, under the headline “In Fundraising’s Murky Corners,” exposed a troubling trend in those groups. Only about one percent of the funds were used for actual political activities such as contributions to politicians or independent political activity. The rest was cycled back into fundraising costs, “a modest but steady source of income for Chavez and four family members,” and various expenses for the family associated with the groups. “I guess you could call it the family business,” as Chavez put it.

Because of individual contribution limits, PACs rely on a large number of contributors for support. In the case of the Chavez groups, which raised funds largely through telemarketing, the Post reported that some donors, who’d given funds without knowing anything more about the groups beyond their names and stated goals, felt like they’d been taken.

When I contacted Republican Majority Campaign’s chairman Gary Kreep about the group, he could tell me little about its activities. Kreep, a Californian, runs the United States Justice Foundation, a conservative non-for-profit. His bio on that organization’s website says he also runs a PAC associated with the United States Justice Foundation, another PAC called the California Justice Political Action Committee, and a not-for-profit called the Family Values Coalition. None of those groups appear to be active, according to FEC, IRS, and California state records. Kreep and the United State Justice Foundation are behind a recent Hillary attack website called HillCAP, the Hillary Clinton Accountability Project, a site dedicated to educating “the public about the largest federal election campaign fraud ever reported,” the case of former Clinton contributor Peter Paul.

The Republic Majority Campaign had first begun with a campaign against Hillary Clinton in late January, he said, but then started going after Obama, too. And the campaign had been limited to phone calls, but would soon include mailings as well.

But when I asked about the details of that campaign (how many calls, in what states, what did the calls say), he didn’t have answers.“I just kind of over all supervise,” he said. “I don’t know how many states, but it’s been all over, nationwide.” How many calls? “That, I honestly don’t have any idea. I know it’s been a lot…. I would estimate at least a million.”

And as for the content of the calls, he could only offer broad outlines. “Right now, it’s just essentially about general philosophy.” The calls focused on a “whole variety of issues,” he said. When I asked if I could see scripts of the calls, he offered to put me in touch with the group’s treasurer, Randy Goodwin. Responding by email later, Goodwin wrote “we are not distributing copies at this time.”

And as for the decision to attack both candidates, Kreep said the group was working to “soften them up for the general election…. We decided we wanted to be out front on it.”

Kreep’s vagueness is made more curious by the group’s similarities to the groups run by Chavez and Gersten.

According to the group’s FEC disclosures, all but approximately $3,000 of the group’s expenditures have gone to a payee called “Political Advertising” at a Mesa, Arizona address. The only telemarketer at that address, Political Call Center, also goes by the business name of HCC Political Advertising. The only political committees to use that company in 2003-2007, according to CQ MoneyLine, were the Pro-Life Campaign Committee and the Republican Issues Committee.

Both of those committees were operated by the Gersten family until January of this year, when they shut down all five of their committees in the wake of the bad publicity generated by the Post story. “I’m closing it down because of my family,” Gersten told Roll Call at the time.

The similarities do not end there. The 1-800 number posted on the Republican Majority Campaign’s website is the same as the number once used for the Pro-Life Campaign Committee.

The history of the group’s website also indicates a link to Chavez and Gersten.

The domain name for the website was first registered on July 9th of last year. On July 16th, Pam Pryor — a veteran Republican staffer who’d served as the “director of Congressional relations” for Stop Union Political Abuse, another one of the now-defunct groups run by Chavez and Gersten — filed papers with the FEC establishing the Republican Majority Campaign. Just one month later, on August 13th, The Washington Post ran its front-page expose of the groups. Less than a month after that, Pryor notified the FEC that she was “closing and terminating” the Republican Majority Campaign PAC “because of a change in my personal plans.”

Contacted by email and asked about the group’s origins, Pryor responded “I started it after talking with some friends about the upcoming elections and dissolved it because I just didn’t have time to do the work. It was going to be a lot more time than I had/have. I really just lost interest when other things captivated my time.”

When I asked if those friends had been Linda Chavez or Christopher Gersten, she replied “the people I referenced in my last email were not the people you mentioned – Chavez and Gersten.”

Late last week, the website for Stop Union Political Abuse was updated to erase any mention of Pryor’s role. Where the “staff” page used to contain bios of both Pryor and Chavez, it now only has a mention of Chavez.

On December 10th of last year, Goodwin filed papers to re-establish the Republican Majority Campaign. When asked if the group had any ties to the Gerstens, Goodwin replied by email and roundly denied any connection:

The Gersten’s [sic] have nothing whatever to do with our group. I do not know them and as far as I know Gary doesn’t know them either.

After I filed the papers for our PAC it was a complete surprise to me that someone else had filed for a PAC
under the same name (but had abandoned it before I filed). I found out by accident when checked the FEC
website to see if my papers had been received and an ID# assigned. I did not recognize the name of the
person who had previously filed, but probably like you, did a search on the internet and found out that
she was someone who had worked with Linda Chavez in some fashion. But, since neither Linda Chavez nor
any of her familly members names appeared on any of the documents it would be speculation to say that they had anything to do with the abandoned effort.

In any case, our committee is completely separate and apart and has nothing to do with them.

Contacted by email, Christopher Gersten also denied any connection to the Republican Majority Campaign, replying simply, “nope.”

Nevertheless, the similarities remain — along with the incumbent concerns about the group’s activities. According to the Post, the telemarketing groups hired by the Gerstens (HCC among them), regularly retained as much as 95 percent of the money they collected. Goodwin confirmed that “some of our calls include a fundraising pitch.”

HCC, or Political Call Center, is currently hiring “tele service agents” who can “choose from four available shifts to do outbound fundraising for non-profit conservative issues,” according to the website.

For now, however, it’s impossible to tell who’s contributing to the Republican Majority Campaign and where else the money is going. More details about the group’s operations won’t be available until later, when the group files its quarterly report with the FEC.

Update/Correction: This piece originally stated that Chavez’s nomination was derailed “by a nanny scandal.” Chavez withdrew her nomination in 2001 after it was revealed that she’d earlier housed an illegal immigrant, who had on occasion done chores for her, but both Chavez and the immigrant said that Chavez had only given her money out of charity.

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