The Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, charges that out-of-state groups masked funding of misleading advertisements targeting six North Carolina legislators running for re-election.
Civitas filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections (SBOE) Thursday morning alleging that the North Carolina Environmental Partnership (NCEP), listed as paying for the campaign ads, doesn’t formally exist, putting the ads in violation of state and federal regulations.
“We filed a complaint against the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center and against a group called the North Carolina Environmental Partnership, which doesn’t exist,” Civitas President Francis De Luca said during a press conference at the SBOE office. “It is our contention that the NRDC, the SELC and this nonexistent NCEP …. have collectively and repeatedly violated state laws, and may also be in violation of the state lobbying laws for failing to report solicitation ads they have aired and mailed.”
According to the complaint, the disclaimer for the ads attributed the ads to the NCEP, which is not a registered organization with the state or federal government, violated NCGS 163-278.39, as well as federal regulations.
The problem with that disclaimer, under state and federal regulations, is that it becomes unclear which entity paid for the ads.
The state laws as well as Federal Communications Commission regulations require that funding sources for political communications must be stated in the ads.
The Civitas complaint focused on 10 ads run before the primary election that used discredited myths about hydrofracturing (fracking) to attack the six legislators. All the ads, and mailers sent out at the same time, had the disclaimer attributed to NCEP.
According to the complaint, the ads qualify as electioneering communications necessitating disclosure of funding sources.
Failure to do so is misrepresentation, a Class I misdemeanor, according to the complaint.
The complaint requests the elections board conduct a formal investigation into the activities of the NRDC and SELC and that, if action is warranted, turn the matter over to the Wake County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
According to Civitas, it is difficult to determine how wide the scope of the alleged violations are and that it appears more than $2 million has been spent on TV ads in the coordinated, partisan effort to unseat six state legislators.
De Luca said with the nature of the filing system looking back it is hard to determine the scope of the alleged violations.
“Filling is always looking back, it tends not to be looking forward so you can’t see that,” De Luca said. “There was just another filing I believe as we were preparing this.”
The legislators include Sens. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake), Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland), Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) and Ronald Rabin (R-Harnett), and Reps. Michele Presnell (R-Haywood) and Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe).
According to a Civitas article, two registered organizations within the “group” seem to claim payment for some of the advertising attributed to the NCEP.
The NRDC, based in New York, NY, and SELC, based in Charlottesville, Va., both claimed ad costs associated with the 10 ads in question.
Both organizations claimed expenses from the ad buys March 20.
Both the NRDC and the SELC claimed $30,094.84 expenses on that day for production and placement of TV ads.
The SELC also claimed a $102,284.52 expenditure in its reporting to the lobbying compliance division of the office of the Secretary of State but reported the $34,094.84, exactly one-third of the $102,000 total, to the SBOE.
Civitas questions the difference in reporting between the organizations.
The discovery came about while Civitas was fact-checking the ads to research future articles about the ads’ false or misleading attacks on fracking, De Luca said.
Civitas outlines the case against the NRDC and the SELC here.
“We started out with the contention the ads are in fact false, a lot of the stuff in there has already been disproven, it’s not based on real information. Well, when you have a group that is in fact hiding who they are, how can you believe what they are saying?” De Luca said.
NCEP bills itself as a group of organizations in partnership working against hydrofracturing in North Carolina.