Ken Cuccinelli Vs. The Grifters

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In a move that could shake up the conservative-outside-group-world, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is suing a conservative political action committee called Conservative StrikeForce PAC for allegedly raising millions of dollars for his campaign, and spending only a small fraction of that on his race. According to a report on the lawsuit:

“(A) substantial proportion of the approximately $2.2 million that defendants raised through political fundraising in 2013 was directly attributable to solicitations invoking Ken Cuccinelli, as Virginia’s gubernatorial election was the marquee contested race of American politics in 2013,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants, however, have admitted that they did not use the money raised invoking Ken Cuccinelli to actually aid the Cuccinelli campaign, either through direct contributions to the campaign or through independent expenditures in support of the campaign, other than a single $10,000 contribution to the campaign on October 4, 2013 – which amounted to less than one-half of one percent of the approximately $2.2 million that defendants raised in 2013.”

Two points immediately jump to mind: 1.) Not all of the $2.2 million the defendants raised came from Cuccinelli-specific solicitations and 2.)

A certain amount of overhead is to be expected in any fundraising endeavor. But this is an interesting story, for a variety of reasons. Cuccinelli now heads the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that also raises and spends money on behalf of conservative candidates. And regardless of the merits of this particular case, the larger story is that the conservative movement has a problem with outside groups and political consultants getting rich at the expense of naive donors and conservative candidates.

Earlier this summer, I wrote a controversial piece about alleged unethical behavior in the direct mail industry. Not surprisingly, I received a lot of negative feedback from industry insiders. Interestingly, representatives of two of the outfits who reached out to me are — to some degree — involved in this story.

As you may recall, a firm called Base Connect was so upset that they even penned an op-ed criticizing my original piece. One of Base Connect’s “strategic partner[s],” Scott Mackenzie, is a defendant in the case (he serves as the treasurer of Conservative Strikeforce PAC). Mackenzie was recently featured in a Fox Detroit investigative report, titled: “Money for political candidates: Where does it come from? Where does it go?”

Screen shot 2014-09-18 at 10.59.35 AM Another conservative direct mail professional who disagreed with my take was Richard Norman. In an email to me, he averred: “Your article on direct mail is filled with inaccuracies and broad generalizations. While it is true that some practitioners of the trade participate in the kinds of things you describe, many do not. And if you believe that the free market works, those who are bad practitioners will someday end in the ditch while those who are better will thrive.” “If you would like to know how direct mail really works for conservative candidates and organizations,” he concluded, “you should talk with someone who knows and who has done it.”

In 2009, Norman founded a business called Active Engagement (yes, the same group that took responsibility for using a picture of Karl Rove in a Nazi uniform for a fundraising pitch). And, it turns out, Active Engagement was responsible for helping Strikeforce raise all that money from conservative donors. According to its website,

In its first year with Active Engagement, StrikeForce was able to spend over $900,000 on direct contributions and independent expenditures for conservative candidates such as Allen West, Scott Walker, Mitt Romney, and more. Other recipients of StrikeForce’s support have included Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain, and many, many more.

Ironically, Cuccinelli’s name is prominently mentioned — as is former Rep. Allen West — who reportedly had similar problems with Strikeforce during his 2012 race. Active Engagement even posted this image on their site: Screen shot 2014-09-18 at 11.10.51 AMSo where will this end up? The hope is that such lawsuits might establish a precedent that there is liability involved in such alleged behavior. This would disinsentivize bad behavior, and make outside groups more likely to comply when candidates (who are economically disadvantaged when money intended to support their candidacy is misdirected elsewhere) issue cease and desist orders.

Cuccinelli was a former Attorney General, so one supposes he wouldn’t bring about a frivolous suit. He is essentially arguing this is a case of false advertising that financially damaged his campaign, that they were willfully misleading the public, and that since it occurred on the internet, it constitutes “interstate commerce.” Having said that, a lot of things that are skeevy are also not illegal. Cuccinelli’s suit brings up several questions: Does a public figure have the right to say who can — or cannot — raise money using his name? And is it illegal to say you’re raising money to help candidate X — whom you cannot coordinate with, in any event — and then fail to deliver? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but how this suit is decided might have long-term ramifications on the future state of the conservative movement — and its consultant class.

*** Disclosure: Matt Lewis’ wife works as a high-dollar and PAC fundraiser. She previously served as a consultant for Ken Cuccinelli’s state senate and attorney general (but not gubernatorial) campaigns.