Hagerty-supporting PAC pushes back against Sethi’s effort to block ad

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi speaks at a campaign event in Clarksville on Feb. 4, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

An outside PAC supporting Bill Hagerty’s bid for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination is pushing back against rival Manny Sethi’s efforts to get TV stations to drop its ad.

Sethis’s lawyers this week called the ad by the Standing with Conservatives PAC “knowingly dishonest” for suggesting a $50 donation to Democratic congressional candidate in 2008 was linked to  online contribution processor ActBlue’s later support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid.

“The ability to criticize a public figure’s actions, and to discuss matters of public importance, lies at the heart of the First Amendment, as courts have repeatedly recognized,” Karen Blackistonea lawyer for Standing with Conservatives, wrote to station managers.

“The Candidate denies supporting ActBlue and asserts that ActBlue does not conduct any advocacy. Per ActBlue’s website, ActBlue is more than just a credit card processor. It is dedicated to empowering democratic and progressive liberal campaigns build their movements,” Blackistone wrote “ActBlue exclusively permits certain groups to use its services that shares similar liberal, progressive values.”

The ads were still on the air of as late this week.

The full letter from Standing with Conservatives follows.

Dear Station Managers:

Our firm is counsel to Standing with Conservatives (the “PAC”), an independent expenditure political action committee registered with the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”).  It has come to our attention that Dr. Manish “Manny” Sethi and his authorized candidate’s committee, Dr. Manny for US Senate, (the “Candidate”) has requested that your station cease and desist from broadcasting an advertisement paid for by the PAC, entitled “This One” (the “Advertisement”).

A request to cease airing a broadcast presents grave implications for upholding the First Amendment. Such a baseless decision by this station to cease airing the Advertisement would serve as an impediment and affront to our nation’s constitutional values.

The request made by the Candidate is baseless, and each statement contained in the Advertisement is substantiated, as demonstrated in Attachment 2, and raises important issues of public policy critical to this election.

Bizarrely, in his letter, the Candidate attempts to assert that his wife made a direct contribution to a “family friend running for office” and he denies himself making any contribution to either Perriello for Congress or ActBlue PAC. The basis, however, for the Candidate’s assertion falls flat in light of the publicly available report filed by ActBlue PAC (“ActBlue”) that is explicitly referenced within the Advertisement.

Further, the Candidate’s shifting defense here contradicts statements made by the Candidate himself and the Campaign. In fact, the Candidate represented that he made such donation even as recently as last week. His Campaign has stated that the Candidate gave the funds “to a friend of a friend.” Ironically, the Campaign Manager confirmed the Candidate donated to ActBlue. And then yesterday, after sending you a letter claiming his wife made the contribution, the Candidate again admitted that he made the contribution. Without more, it appears the Candidate and his Campaign are actually the ones struggling to tell the truth.

At the time that the Candidate (or his wife) made the contribution to ActBlue, he (or she) was required to make certain attestations, including his name, address, and employer/occupation information. Critically, the contributor was also required to affirm that the individual whose name is listed is the person making the contribution and that the funds used to make the contribution are drawn from an account legally owned by that person. Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) regulations require, and required in 2008, that all solicitations include this affirmation. To make a contribution in the name of another is a serious violation of federal law for which criminal penalties can, and have, been assessed.

A political committee’s treasurer is charged by the FEC, in the spirit of transparency, with the duty to obtain, maintain, and report correct information regarding its activity within a reporting period on publicly available campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. With respect to an earmarked contribution, ActBlue must disclose the name and mailing address of each contributor on its campaign finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”). Thus, the general public, including the PAC, is entitled to rely on ActBlue’s campaign finance reports as a source of accurate information. In this case, those reports disclose “Manish Sethi” as the contributor, not his wife.

Second, the Candidate denies supporting ActBlue and asserts that ActBlue does not conduct any advocacy. Per ActBlue’s website, ActBlue is more than just a credit card processor. It is dedicated to empowering democratic and progressive liberal campaigns build their movements. ActBlue exclusively permits certain groups to use its services that shares similar liberal, progressive values. The very definition of “advocates” is defined as “one who supports . . . the interests of a cause or group.” Some PACs advocate for their favored policies by making contributions to candidates, others by making advertisements, still others by conducting rallies or door-to-door “get out the vote” efforts. The fact that ActBlue has developed, hosts, and promotes its platform exclusively for the use of liberal and progressive candidates and causes is just another form of “supporting the interests of a cause or group.”

Critically, the Advertisement contains accurate onscreen language explaining exactly who the Candidate contributed to and what that PAC did with those funds, stating “donation to ActBlue; earmark to Perriello for Congress” per the report. Bottom line, ActBlue is organized as a PAC. Its mission is to support liberal and progressive candidates and causes. The Candidate may attempt to argue technicalities, argue that the contribution was actually intended to support a candidate and not the PAC itself, but the facts presented in the Advertisement are true.

The ability to criticize a public figure’s actions, and to discuss matters of public importance, lies at the heart of the First Amendment, as courts have repeatedly recognized. As you know, the Federal Communications Commission has held that stations best meet their public interest obligations “by presenting contrasting views” and encouraging “robust, wide-open debate.” It has consistently rejected invitations by political figures to “judge the truth or falsity of material being broadcast on either side of a currently controversial issue.” If the Candidate would like to try to convince voters that it was his wife who made a contribution to ActBlue or that his contribution to ActBlue is excusable because it was earmarked for Perriello for Congress, he is welcome to purchase air time on your station to do so.

For all of the reasons articulated in this letter and documented in the attachments, the accuracy of this Advertisement is indisputable. We, therefore, respectfully request that you continue broadcasting this unquestionably accurate Advertisement. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Karen Blackistone, Counsel

Standing with Conservatives

 

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