DENVER – The successful 2014 Senate campaign of Colorado Republican Cory Gardner is named in a new federal election complaint alleging the National Rifle Association violated federal election laws by using a shell corporation to skirt coordination rules.
The complaint, filed by the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, claims that two arms of the NRA were contracting with two different organizations, OnMessage Inc. and Starboard Strategic Inc., that the CLC says were actually the same company. But campaign finance experts say the set-up is typical of a “firewall” often put in place with political organizations like the two.
Any American is allowed to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, after which the commission reviews the complaint to see if further investigation is warranted to find if violations occurred. The complaint was filed Monday, so it is in the early stages of the process.
The initial complaint alleges that while the NRA Political Victory Fund and NRA Institute for Legislative Action were supporting four Senate candidates through Starboard in 2014 and 2016 – including Gardner – that the campaigns were paying OnMessage at the same time for consulting and advertising.
It says that since the two organizations had many of the same employees and the same address, the two NRA arms violated campaign finance laws because “there is reason to believe,” according to the complaint, that OnMessage and Starboard had used strategic information from the campaign committees to develop advertising for the NRA’s support of the four candidates and were thus using a “common vendor.”
The complaint alleges that the 2014 campaigns of Gardner—who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time and was challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall—Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas were those affected by the alleged scheme. It also claims that the 2016 campaign of Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was affected.
“It appears that OnMessage created Starboard for the purpose of disguising the NRA-PVF’s and NRA-ILA’s coordinated communications,” the complaint alleges. “As a result, the NRA-PVF and the NRA-ILA made excessive and unreported contributions to those campaign committees, in violation of FECA’s reporting requirements and contribution limits.”
The complaint was filed by the CLC, which describes its mission as aiming “to protect and strengthen the U.S. democratic process through litigation and other legal advocacy.” The filing comes after a story published in Politico Magazine last Friday that showed the links between the NRA arms, OnMessage and Starboard.
The story was reported by two journalists who work for The Trace, which receives grants from Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that says it is working “to end gun violence and build safer communities.”
The complaint says that a man named Brad Todd, who was a director at OnMessage when he was also named a director of Starboard when it was formed in 2013 at the same address as OnMessage, was a key player between the two organizations and Gardner’s campaign.
According to the complaint, the two NRA arms paid Starboard about $20.5 million in 2014, including about $3.1 million for support for Gardner’s campaign committee. Gardner’s campaign committee then paid OnMessage $8 million for media production and web services, among others, according to the complaint. Todd is described in a Roll Call story from 2014 as a consultant for Gardner’s campaign.
“We get attacked by liberal activists every day, this is just another day,” Todd said in a statement to Denver7. “The entire thesis of the column is false. OnMessage Inc. and Starboard Strategic have firewall policies in place and follow campaign finance laws meticulously.”
Todd also noted that Everytown for Gun Safety is backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“[Bloomberg] has pledged to spend $80 million against conservatives this cycle in the House alone. We will not be intimidated by him,” he said.
The CLC argues in the complaint that since the NRA was paying Starboard to support Gardner’s campaign committee and the other candidates, and since Gardner’s campaign committee was also spending money on OnMessage to advertise, that the advertising constituted a coordinated communication and something “of value” that should have been designated as an in-kind contribution.
But federal election rules allow for organizations to set up firewalls between those coordinating the money aspect of the relationship and the services side, which some have said is exactly what happened between OnMessage and Starboard.
“The firewall must be designed and implemented to prohibit the flow of information between employees or consultants providing service to the person paying for the communication and those employees or consultants providing services to a political party committee or to the candidate who is clearly identified in the communication or to the campaign of the candidate opposing,” the FEC’s rules say.
The NRA did not respond to questions from Denver7. Gardner’s 2014 campaign manager, Chris Hansen, who is now the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which Gardner now chairs, could not be reached when Denver7 spoke with an NRSC spokesperson.
The CLC, in its filing, asked for an immediate investigation of the allegations and if the NRA arms are guilty of what is alleged that an injunction be filed against them “to deter future violations.”
Responding to statements made by Todd, James Burnett of The Trace sent Denver7 the following statement:
"The story is built on indisputable federal and state public records, which are available to anyone willing to look, and those records raised serious and obvious questions about Starboard, OnMessage and the NRA. Campaign finance laws are supposed to protect the public by informing voters about who is funding candidates, and ensuring that politicians and special interest groups don't take back doors that provide unfair advantages. Perhaps they will be more forthcoming with regulators than they have been with journalists."
But historical data about the FEC’s enforcement shows that only a handful of complaints filed ever make it all the way to a conciliation agreement in which penalties are assessed. In 2017, there were 23 matters that reached conciliation agreements, while 151 matters were closed. The average civil penalty in those cases was $51,709.
The NRA was far from the only group spending money on the Gardner-Udall race. It was a focus for both Republicans and Democrats as the parties battled over control of the Senate, and according to the Denver Post, nearly $70 million in money from special interest groups and the national parties poured into the race. Gardner eventually defeated the incumbent Udall by about 40,000 votes.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include statement sfrom Bradley Todd and James Burnett.