CLEVELAND, Ohio – U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, a Wadsworth Republican who is running for governor, coordinated with a private company that bills itself as a grassroots organization to attack Secretary of State Jon Husted, a rival in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
And it’s perfectly legal.
Generally, corporations can engage in political activities as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate or campaign. However, Ohio law allows certain kinds of companies to work with campaigns and candidates, as long as the coordination appears on a campaign finance disclosure form.
Those laws allow Renacci and Citizens for Trump – a group that calls itself a grassroots organization but is part of a limited liability corporation called Patriotic Strategies based in Texas – to work in concert in the governor’s race.
The Renacci campaign registered two domain names on Sept. 5 – dishonestjonny.com and dishonestjon.com. Renacci spokesman James Slepian said dishonestjonny.com was then transferred to Citizens for Trump.
Citizens for Trump used the domain to create an attack website against Husted, who is also running for governor as a Republican. A disclaimer at the bottom of the website – which as of Thursday had gone blank but is archived here – previously said it was paid for by Citizens for Trump, but was scrubbed from the site before it went dark.
The website hit Husted for not being a fan of President Donald Trump, for bringing Common Core education standards to Ohio and for overseeing a budget increase during his time as House speaker.
Slepian said the campaign discussed some of the content on the website with Citizens for Trump, which endorsed Renacci in the governor’s race earlier this year.
“In terms of content sharing, the campaign did communicate its messaging on Jon Husted,” Slepian said. “A lot of that was publicly available at the time, but the campaign did share that with Citizens for Trump when they expressed interest in launching that site.”
Despite partaking in political activities, Citizens for Trump is not a registered political organization. Any group involved in political activities that raises more than $5,000 must register with the Federal Elections Commission. Outside political groups are also not supposed to use a candidate’s name.
A donation page on the Citizens for Trump website – which has been removed but is captured on a screenshot here – to a PayPal page for Patriotic Strategies, a private limited liability corporation based in Texas. Documents from the Texas secretary of state show one of the managers is James Lee Brown.
A domain registration search showed Brown held the domain for dishonestjonny.com at one point, but it has since been made private.
Corporations can use their money for political purposes because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. At the federal level, that typically comes with the caveat that the corporations cannot coordinate directly with the campaign.
The amount of coordination between Renacci and Citizens for Trump befuddled some experts, who initially thought it might be a violation of elections law.
Administrative rules in Ohio allow private companies to use their funds for political purposes “provided that the use of funds or property is not made with the consent of, in coordination, cooperation, or consultation with, or at the request or suggestion of any candidate or candidates.”
But the rules are different for limited liability corporations like Patriotic Strategies. In Ohio, it is perfectly OK for campaigns to work together with LLCs, which have a different structure than incorporated businesses. Professional associations and partnerships are also allowed some degree of coordination.
Slepian said the coordination between Citizens for Trump and the campaign was above board and legal under Ohio law. The only thing that would need to be reported would be an in-kind contribution for hosting services, Slepian said, which will show up on the next filing in January.
“The corporate ban is really only strictly applied to corporations,” said Philip Richter, Ohio Elections Commission executive director. “LLCs are something of an anomaly as it relates to the corporate contribution ban. They’ve never been included in those provisions.”
A 1996 advisory opinion from the Ohio Elections Commission states that for political purposes, LLCs are different from corporations and not subject to the same campaign finance laws.
That makes it open season for Renacci – or any other candidate – to work with companies like Citizens for Trump, which looks like a political organization but doesn’t have to report donors.
The only boundary for LLCs giving to a campaign is the state-mandated $12,707.79 contribution limit currently on the books.
Richter added that kind of coordination wouldn’t be encouraged, but the General Assembly has never changed the law and it remains legal. Richter said he couldn’t recall any previous examples of LLCs coordinating with campaigns. The commission has never been asked to intervene in a case involving such coordination, he said.
Slepian, Renacci’s spokesman, didn’t comment on if he felt the LLC exemption amounted to a loophole for candidates to skirt campaign finance and election laws.
“I didn’t write the law,” Slepian said. “That’s what it says and campaigns across Ohio and across the country consistently receive contributions from LLCs. The law is the law and all we can do is follow it.”
Brown did not respond to a request for comment. Timothy Selaty Sr., executive director of Citizens for Trump, could not be reached for comment.