A conservative watchdog group filed a Federal Election Commission complaint on Monday, April 16, against Hiral Tipirneni, a Democratic congressional candidate hoping to stage an upset in Tuesday's special election.
Arizona's Public Integrity Alliance alleges that the volunteer-run Postcards to Voters group and Tipirneni's campaign violated campaign-finance law governing in-kind contributions and coordination by sending postcards promoting Tipirneni to households in the state's 8th Congressional District.
Allegations of campaign-finance violations have also trailed Tipirneni's opponent, Republican State Senator Debbie Lesko, since February. Tipirneni and Lesko are competing in an April 24 special election in CD8 to replace Trent Franks, who resigned last winter in the wake of multiple sexual-harassment allegations.
Postcards to Voters promotes Democratic candidates by mailing handwritten postcards to likely Democratic voters in contested elections, according to the group's website. The initiative began in March 2017 during a hotly contested Georgia special election. But because the group is not registered as a political-action committee, the Public Integrity Alliance says that its volunteer activity amounts to illegal coordination and unaccountable in-kind campaign contributions.
Tipirneni spokesperson Jason Kimbrough wrote in an email that there has been no coordination between the campaign and the postcard-writing group.
"This bogus complaint made by another Lesko-affiliated dark money organization is a sad case of smoke and mirrors," Kimbrough wrote. "It’s a desperate attempt to deflect attention from her own alleged money laundering, but the real victims are the volunteers whose patriotic, civic engagement is being sullied by her campaign’s false claims.”
Coordination between candidates and third-party organizations on messaging or spending strategies is illegal under federal election law.
The Postcards to Voters website says that it accepts donations via check, credit card or PayPal. The organization also says it relies on talking points from campaigns when writing messages on postcards.
"It seems like, at best, a very haphazard organization, and at worst, they just flaunt the election-campaign laws," said Tyler Montague, Public Integrity Alliance president. "And if the Tipirneni campaign is doing what this organization says it does, which is coordinate with them, then that’s inappropriate."
Nonetheless, Montague admitted that his watchdog group has no hard evidence such as phone records or emails proving that the Tipirneni campaign communicated with Postcards to Voters to draft talking points. "You’d have to have the investigative power that the FEC has to uncover something like that," he said.
Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, organizations that receive or spend more than $1,000 during an election cycle for the purposes of electing a candidate or influencing an election must register with the FEC. The Alliance's complaint alleges that because the postcard drive likely cost more than $1,000 in postage and other costs, Postcards to Voters should have registered with the FEC as a political committee and reported its spending on an effort designed to elect Tipirneni.
Even if the organization's volunteers paid for the postage and supplies promoting Tipirneni, the complaint argues, these costs would still count as an in-kind campaign contribution.
In a March 20 Facebook status, Postcards to Voters said that it was hitting an average of 3,359 addresses daily in CD8. According to Montague, he obtained one of these postcards, postmarked March 31, piquing his interest in the campaign-finance implications because there was no disclosure on the mailing that said it had been paid for by a campaign committee.
The Alliance calculated that if the mailing organization was in fact sending over 3,300 postcards a day during this 10-day period in March, Postcards to Voters would have racked up at least $14,000 in postage expenses alone.
The complaint from the Alliance also argues that Postcards to Voters violated FEC regulations by having volunteers take phrases directly from candidates and their campaigns and put them into their handwritten messages.
Under the FAQ section of Postcards to Voters' website, one question addresses the issue of talking points: "What do I write on a postcard? Are there standard talking points and/or Election Day info given along with the address assignments? Or are talking points based on our own research/point of view?"
The answer states, "When you request addresses from Postcards to Voters, we will provide talking points and addresses. The talking points are the ones that the campaign has requested. You are welcome to make the wording feel more your style, but we do need you to stick with the talking points provided."
When reached via email, the Postcards to Voters founder who goes by "Tony the Democrat" would only give his first name and said that he has not been contacted by anyone regarding an FEC complaint.
"If and when an official inquiry is ever made by an authorized agency, I will cooperate in my capacity as the founder and leader of the all-volunteer, grassroots initiative Postcards to Voters," he wrote. "However, to spend one more minute addressing a release with so many fabricated claims one week before an election is to play into an attempt to distract people from the substantive issues of the election."
The Postcards to Voters donation page names Tony McMullin as the recipient for donations to the organization and lists a Georgia address.
Sniping based on campaign-finance complaints has gone in both directions during the CD8 race.
Lesko's campaign has been forced to respond to campaign-finance complaints, too. Before the Republican CD8 primary, her opponent Phil Lovas argued that Lesko had improperly transferred $50,000 from her state senate campaign fund to a supportive political-action committee. A Washington, D.C. group, the Campaign Legal Center, followed up with an identical complaint two weeks later, after Lesko had secured the Republican nomination. Her campaign said that the allegation was baseless.
Although the Alliance leans right, Montague said that his group criticizes Democrats and Republicans in equal measure when they find evidence of ethical lapses. Recently, his group went after State Senator Steve Montenegro during his texting imbroglio in the CD8 primary, from which Lesko emerged as the Republican victor. The Alliance has also blasted former Representative Don Shooter — a serial sexual harasser whose colleagues ousted him from the Legislature in February — as well as then-candidate Donald Trump.
Montague, who works as a financial forecaster and heads the Alliance part-time, declined to comment in detail on the campaign-finance complaints dogging Lesko.
Tipirneni's team has seized on Lesko's campaign-finance travails. "Debbie won't clean up Washington; she's just more of the same," intones the voiceover in a Tipirneni attack ad.
As to what is really going on with Postcards to Voters, Montague says the FEC should determine if the group is dodging campaign-finance regulations.
"Dark, insidious plan to overthrow democracy or amateurish bumbling?" Montague said, clearly joking. "The FEC will investigate and let us know."