Dark money flowing into 2018 Ohio Republican primary elections


CLEVELAND, Ohio — At least $1.2 million in what appears to be untraceable “dark money” was spent by three groups to help or hurt Republican candidates during the first quarter of 2018, newly filed federal campaign finance documents show.

A little more than $1 million went into the Ohio governor’s race to two Super PACs, one that supports Attorney General Mike DeWine and another that supports Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor. Another $150,000 went to a Super PAC that paid for TV ads attacking State Rep. Larry Householder, the Ohio House speaker candidate.

The organizations that made the donations, reported Sunday in documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, appear to have been structured in such a way that intentionally obscures the source of the money. One group, which gave about $206,000 to a Super PAC supporting Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s run for governor, on its most recent tax filing listed its address as a PO Box in Washington D.C. with a listed phone number that appears to have been incorrect. 

Another group, which gave $850,000 to a Super PAC supporting Taylor shortly before the group placed a statewide ad campaign attacking DeWine, has no other obvious public presence. 

Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a left-leaning good-government group, said so-called “dark money” makes it impossible to assess what political donors’ agendas are, and circumvents regulations meant to promote transparency in political spending. 

“We’re not surprised that Super PACs are involved with federal elections or presidential elections,” Turcer said. “It is a bit surprising though when this activity goes on in races for the [Ohio] Statehouse.”

Here are the three dark money groups, and a quick description of their donations:

The Independence and Freedom Network

This new group is a non-profit 501(c)(4), or what the IRS calls a “social welfare organization.” It registered with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office on April 13, 2017.

On March 16, it gave $850,000 to Onward Ohio, a Super PAC supporting Lt. Gov Mary Taylor in her run for Ohio governor. The group was Onward Ohio’s only reported donor during the first quarter of 2018.

Four days later, Onward Ohio launched a statewide TV campaign attacking Taylor’s primary opponent, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Onward Ohio spent $800,000 total during the first quarter of 2018.

Google, the search engine, registers no results for the Independence and Freedom Network other than its incorporation articles, or news articles or social media posts about the newly uncovered March donation to the pro-Taylor group. James G. Ryan, a Columbus attorney who filed the group’s incorporation articles in Ohio, didn’t return a message. A message left with Onward Ohio wasn’t returned.

Freedom Frontier

Freedom Frontier is another 501(c)(4) with tax records dating back to at least 2011. Freedom Frontier during the first quarter of 2018 gave about $206,300 to Ohio Conservatives for a Change, a Super PAC created last year to support Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. Ohio Conservatives for a Change converted to a pro-DeWine Super PAC sometime after Husted became DeWine’s running mate in December.

Freedom Frontier’s most recent tax filing, filed with the IRS in April 2017, lists the group’s address as a P.O. Box in Washington, D.C. But the most recent entry on the IRS public website, dated 2015, alternatively lists an address in Austin, Texas associated with a company that helps incorporate companies, as its address.

The April 2017 tax filing lists a Google Voice phone number with an Austin area code as its only contact information. A reporter left a message at the number, and later received a call back from a woman with a different Texas phone number who didn’t know anything about how her number ended up on a tax form.

Freedom Frontier on its tax filing describes its mission as advocating for “free market solutions to the multitude of economic challenges that our country currently faces.”

The 2015 entry on the IRS website lists Joel Riter, a Republican political operative in Ohio, as its then-treasurer. Reached Monday, Riter didn’t appear familiar with the group, and said his listing as its former treasurer was a “clerical error.” Another listed treasurer, John Jude, couldn’t be reached.

Ohio Conservatives for a Change also reported two clearly disclosed donations — $50,000 from Ginni Ragan, a major Republican donor from the Columbus area and $10,000 from Stephanie McCloud, a Columbus-area attorney. The group spent about $205,000 during the first quarter of 2018, much of it going to Majority Strategies, a political mail firm run by Brett Buerck, a Republican political operative and Ohio native. Ohio Conservatives for a Change also reported owing Majority Strategies another $939,000. 

A spokesman for Ohio Conservatives for a Change could not be reached.  

LZP LLC

The Honor & Principles PAC filed organizational paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission on March 26. The group’s first-quarter campaign finance filing lists one donation — $175,000 given on March 28 by “LZP LLC,” a Columbus corporation that filed incorporation articles with the state the day before.

On March 29, the Honor and Principles PAC spent about $163,000 on a media buy. On April 1, the group launched a TV commercial launched attacking State Rep. Larry Householder, according to Medium Buying, a Columbus Republican political firm that tracks and places political ads in Ohio. 

Ryan, the Columbus attorney who helped incorporate the Independence and Freedom Network, also filed paperwork incorporating the Honor & Principles PAC. He has not returned a message seeking comment. The treasurer for the Honor and Principles PAC, Lisa Lisker, in a recent telephone interview that said she couldn’t discuss her clients. 

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