October 15, 2018

Senators Call Out NRA for Using Shell Corporation to Duck Campaign Finance Law

Washington – Nine Senators are calling on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to take action against the National Rifle Association (NRA) and a major Republican advertising firm for using a shell company apparently to skirt campaign finance law to coordinate tens of millions of dollars in political ad spending.  The firm, OnMessage, established the shell company, Starboard Strategic, in 2013 with the same staff and founders and in the same offices as OnMessage.  The arrangement would make it virtually impossible for OnMessage staff to observe the legally binding firewall between outside spenders like the NRA and political candidates they have under contract.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) were joined by Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in signing the letter to the FEC.

“Given the lack of separation between the two entities, we are concerned that OnMessage employees shared inside information with their colleagues working on the Starboard accounts that would otherwise be prohibited if an appropriate firewall existed between these entities,” the Senators write.  “It is possible that these communications allowed the campaigns to coordinate and strategically link their advertising message and purchases in many competitive races throughout the country.  We urge you to investigate this matter and hold those who violate our campaign finance laws accountable.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said of the senators’ letter, “The American people deserve answers from the NRA regarding the tens of millions of dollars it directed to OnMessage and Starboard Strategic.  We applaud these senators for calling on the FEC to investigate whether the NRA, OnMessage, or Starboard Strategic broke campaign finance law.”

Following the creation of Starboard in 2013, reporting has shown remarkable integration between the messages in NRA advertisements in favor of candidates represented by OnMessage and the same candidates’ campaigns.  The Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the NRA in August over the apparent campaign finance law violation.

Full text of the Senators’ letter  is below. 

Dear Chairman Hunter and Vice-Chair Weintraub:

We are writing to encourage the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) to open an investigation into a potential campaign finance violation involving illegal coordination by OnMessage, Inc. (“OnMessage”) through a subsidiary called Starboard Strategic, Inc. (“Starboard”).  Based on published reports, we believe it is highly likely that OnMessage and Starboard violated current campaign finance law by exceeding campaign finance limits and sharing proprietary information related to candidates and campaign expenditures.  The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint on the matter in July, and we believe it warrants prompt attention from the FEC.

Candidates are prohibited from accepting contributions outside of the existing campaign finance limits during an election cycle.  Moreover, any expenditure made in coordination with a candidate is considered to be an in-kind contribution to the candidate under 52 U.S.C. §30116(a)(7)(B)(i).

OnMessage currently serves as the primary vendor for advertisements for many federal candidates and campaigns, including many Senate candidates and party committees.  In 2013, principals at OnMessage established Starboard expressly for the purpose of advertising for a single client: the National Rifle Association of America. (NRA).  Tens of millions in NRA advertising expenditures that once went to OnMessage were subsequently redirected exclusively to Starboard.  There is little distinction between the two entities: OnMessage and Starboard are located at the same addresses in Annapolis and Virginia, and the firms are composed of the same staff and founders.  It appears that Starboard is merely a shell company meant to disguise that the individuals working to direct campaign strategies and advertisements for Senate candidates were employees of OnMessage. 

Given the lack of separation between the two entities, we are concerned that OnMessage employees shared inside information with their colleagues working on the Starboard accounts that would otherwise be prohibited if an appropriate firewall existed between these entities.  It is possible that these communications allowed the campaigns to coordinate and strategically link their advertising messages and purchases in many competitive races throughout the country. 

Every candidate for office has an interest in ensuring that elections are conducted fairly under our current campaign finance law.  These reports of illegal coordination and flaunting of campaign finance limits deserve a full investigation by the Commission.  We urge you to investigate this matter and hold those who violate our campaign finance laws accountable.

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