Illegal NRA Campaign Contributions to Tillis Campaign Alleged in Suit Filed by Gun Safety Group

Gun Rights

This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.

The Giffords gun safety organization has sued the National Rifle Association and the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, alleging the gun rights group used shell corporations to improperly aid the Republican lawmakers in 2018.

Two NRA affiliates made up to $35 million in illegal campaign contributions—in the form of coordinated communications efforts—to the GOP Senate campaigns of Hawley, Rosendale, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, as well as Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, according to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Tuesday.

The NRA Political Victory Fund, a political action committee, and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action spent millions on supposedly independent political advertising for the six Senate candidates and Trump in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 federal election cycles, according to the suit.

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The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance group, is representing Giffords, a gun-safety group founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, (D-Arizona), in part to counter the NRA’s influence in national politics.

Under a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, outside groups are allowed to spend unlimited amounts on political speech, including advertisements in favor of candidates.

But federal campaign finance rules require such advertisements to be commissioned without coordinating with campaigns. Coordinated messaging counts as an in-kind contribution.

Political action committees are subject to a $5,000 limit per cycle on contributions, including in-kind contributions, to a single candidate. Corporations are not allowed to spend treasury funds for coordinated messaging on behalf of political candidates.

The suit accuses the NRA and the campaigns of using the same political messaging firms to disguise coordinated campaign activity as independent advertising.

The NRA paid Starboard Strategic Inc., a Virginia and Maryland-headquartered company, for advertising in support of the candidates. The candidates paid a company called OnMessage that the suit says is “functionally indistinguishable” from Starboard.

“They are led by the same people and located at the same address, and no internal separation or firewall exists between the staff who work for each entity,” the suit says. “OnMessage has been nominated for, and has accepted, industry awards for [NRA] ads contracted through Starboard.”

The companies, which the suit alleges are actually one firm operating under two names, then coordinated to create and place complementary advertisements—exactly the type of coordination that is not supposed to be allowed between campaigns and outside groups.

“By falsely claiming their advertising spending was independent, however, the NRA affiliates evaded [federal] contribution limits, source prohibitions and disclosure requirements,” the Campaign Legal Center said in a statement.


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