Introducing the Swiftboat Network

by Karoli on September 28, 2009 · 313 comments

The right wing has designed an insidious new way to allow many rich contributors to fund unlimited spending on political message campaigns, all orchestrated by one PR firm, thus avoiding most existing FEC laws for reporting and disclosure. The bottom line? Massive propaganda blitzes with virtually no limits, and no accountability.

Buried deep within the Internet, there is a place called the Federal Election Commission. Buried deeper within the Federal Election Commission, there is a place where any interested party can view requests for advisory opinions, read both sides’ arguments for and against, comment, and listen to the audio of public hearings.

Buried deeper still, are the seeds of a plan to circumvent all election finance law and everything we know right now about so-called ‘astroturf organizations’ in a perfectly legal, United States Federal Election Commission-approved kind of way.[Index here]

The Players

  • Carl Forti and Michael Dubke, principals of the newly-formed Black Rock Group in Alexandria, Virginia. Just for reference, Carl Forti was a former principal of Freedom’s Watch and communications director for Mitt Romney and the NRCC.
  • Wealthy donors to Republican causes. Some notable possibilities: Steve Forbes, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Betsy DeVos, James Dobson, and just about anyone listed on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce, their friends, and their friends’ friends, as well as a network of less-wealthy but nevertheless committed internet denizens, led by people like Tea Party Guy Eric Odom.
  • Anyone with the money to play. There is only one requirement: They must be willing to use their own money, act on their own, and hire Black Rock Group as their consultant.

The Plan

People who might otherwise make donations to 527 groups (which are subject to campaign disclosure laws), will instead form as Limited Liability Companies (LLCs). Each company will advertise, take polls, or conduct direct media campaigns for or against Federal candidates as they choose. The company will not accept any funds from any outside sources. Simply put, wealthy donors will no longer be restricted to current contribution limits or disclosure laws because they will be acting individually as a company to put their message on the air. This has long been held to be a First Amendment right of individuals. They’re allowed to spend whatever they want. It isn’t new.

Black Rock Group will act as advisor to these groups. From their original request for an advisory opinion:

BRG may encourage its individual clients to establish LLCs with the above characteristics. BRG also may be approached by clients who have already established, or are contemplating establishing, an LLC with the above characteristics.

BRG will advise these LLCs on the development of messages that expressly advocate the election or defeat of the Federal candidates chosen by the client. BRG’s role will be to advise each LLC concerning how best to communicate its sole member’s views on these Federal candidates.

And this:

Each LLC will spend more than $1,000 per calendar year on independent expenditures for television, radio, direct mail, phone bank, and print advertisements. In no case, however, will any communication be funded by more than one individual…BRG, its LLC clients, and any other vendor providing services to each LLC will not coordinate any communications with any Federal candidate or political party committee.

The key here is not the message. It’s the messenger, and the advisor behind the messenger.

It’s not difficult to imagine 100 different Swiftboat ads, each with the same message but a different messenger, a messenger who is a client of Black Rock Group and involved in the same campaign against the same candidate.

So what? This isn’t new, right?

Well, yes. And no. It’s about networks and identity. As Politico noted back in June:

When rich players have run into trouble for their political dabbling, it’s usually been because they got creative or sneaky in an effort to hide their identities or pool resources in a way they hoped would avoid the $5,000 donation limit for political committees.

This is different, because each person will be acting as their own company with one common link: Black Rock Group, where Black Rock Group fully intends to be the central hub crafting the central message, no matter what small differences may emerge in the final presentation by each company.

Moreover, it is anticipated that BRG will facilitate communication among various LLCs by scheduling conference calls or meetings between certain LLCs or passing along messages between LLCs.

Black Rock Group has asked the FEC to rule on whether their role, as stated above, would cause these individual companies to be deemed a “political committee”, which would then be subject to FEC disclosure and limits.

Has this been approved?

FEC has issued two Draft rulings. The first one blesses the arrangement as being completely legal and permissible, including BRG’s involvement. The second rules that if BRG facilitates communication, there will be a “group of persons” subject to the 527 reporting and disclosure requirements.

A final decision is pending. However, even if Draft ruling B is adopted, all that really means is that BRG may not communicate with these LLCs as a group, but only on an individual basis. There is nothing really stopping them from communicating the same message to each client separately rather than as a group.

It seems clear that the only indecision at the FEC right now concerns whether BRG can communicate with these companies as a group via conference call or other means. The fundamental structure doesn’t appear to be an issue at all. What that means to voters is that we will be inundated with negative campaign ads funded by shadow entities who will be shielded from the light of day. They will say whatever they want to say in whatever fashion they want to say it, including the usual smear tactics, but will never have to own one word of what they’ve said, because they are shielded by a legal entity surrounding the individual.

That’s the real problem here. If a Goldman Sachs executive wants to go negative on a candidate and has the funds to pay for it, no one will ever be able to point back to Goldman Sachs, nor will that executive ever have to own the words. Now multiply that by a factor of many, all blasting the same message over radio, tv, push poll, polls, and other means. It’s lucrative for Black Rock Group, shields candidates from associations they’d rather not disclose, and inundates the rest of us with a barrage of ‘nattering nabobs of negativity.’

This isn’t astroturf. It’s a concrete firewall, intended to shield and protect the messenger who brings destructive messages. In a day and age where transparency and disclosure have cast light on the interests of those carrying the message, this plan seeks to drop a lightproof curtain over the process, with the full consent and blessing of the Federal Election Commission. It is the equivalent of a full-scale Google bomb via direct mail, television, radio, and your telephone (via pollsters).

Networks are networks, no matter how small…

But what about the Internet? I see the same plan being hatched here, too. Eric Odom’s recent Project 73 announcement indicated some similar characteristics. He’s planning a news portal with a for-profit business model, similar to the Huffington Post, which appears to be an aggregator. We’ve already seen sites turn up that are nearly impossible to trace, such as the recent “US Citizens Association“, which appears to have been created solely to broadcast an anti-Obama and anti-health care reform ad while claiming to be a ‘grass-roots organization.”

Under the arrangement described by BRG, there will no longer be a need for any such claim. All anyone will need to do is buy a domain, put up a turnkey site (presumably assisted by Odom’s firm), and slap their last-aired video, full-page print ad, article, or blog post up there, which Odom can then aggregate via his American Liberty Alliance site. Presumably, the message could be crafted by BRG, and the clients “advised” to put up a site. This tracks with some of the recent activity I’ve seen just in California. LLCs created in the past three months with LegalZoom or a different online legal service as the agent for legal process, with a domain name associated, but no site launched. As Odom says,

We have the branding, we have the domains

Same network, different venue.

Stay tuned. The message will be the same, but the messenger will be cloaked and masked, wrapped in a shell entity advised by the architect of some of the most destructive messages this country has seen yet.

Update 11/27/2009: The FEC made a decision to (sort of) allow these networks to populate. This is why the second FEC link doesn’t work anymore. The first link goes to the ‘compromise decision’ which essentially allows a tentative go-ahead with caveats for future rulings if they see a problem. Funny, I see a problem right now. By the time FEC gets around to it, it’ll be a crisis.
Cross-posted to The Bipartisan Report

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