An election watchdog has accused the National Rifle Association of violating campaign finance laws for the second time in less than three months, following a Trace report on the gun group’s use of an apparent shell company to attack Montana Senator Jon Tester.
The gun group's first big ad buy of the 2018 cycle was made through a company that, according to an election watchdog, exists only to circumvent campaign finance laws.
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that monitors campaign spending, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Monday arguing that there is “reason to believe” that the NRA made “illegal, unreported, and excessive” contributions to the campaign of Tester’s challenger, Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale.
The complaint alleges that there is strong evidence that the NRA is using what appears to be a shell company called Starboard Strategic Inc. to illegally coordinate independent expenditures with Rosendale’s campaign. Starboard Strategic is, according to the Legal Center, “functionally indistinguishable” from another political ad firm called OnMessage, which contracted directly with the Rosendale campaign as recently as June. The two entities share the same office addresses and partners. By using Starboard to attack Tester while OnMessage worked directly with Rosendale, the complaint says, the NRA may have skirted rules against coordinating with campaigns.
The Trace revealed last week that the NRA used Starboard as the vendor for a new ad that attacked Tester. The Legal Center filed a similar complaint in July, based on reporting from The Trace and Politico, accusing the NRA of using the same tactic to illegally support the 2014 Senate campaigns of Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Cory Gardner in Colorado, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina, along with Ron Johnson’s 2016 campaign in Wisconsin.
The latest complaint is also buttressed by a report in The Daily Beast, which obtained an audio recording of Rosendale saying that the NRA would soon begin running ads on his behalf and quoting top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox telling him, “We’re gonna be in this race.”
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“Previously, we had the evidence that the NRA is using a shell corporation to unlawfully coordinate with candidates,” the Legal Center’s director, Brendan Fischer, told The Trace. “Now we have evidence that at least one candidate supported by the NRA knew about that support. There’s a mounting body of evidence that the NRA is skirting campaign finance laws to unlawfully pour millions of dollars into U.S. elections.”
The filing was co-signed by Giffords, a gun violence prevention group.
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.