Politics & Government

Burr’s 2016 campaign coordinated with NRA fund, liberal group contends in complaint

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NC Senator Richard Burr defeats Deborah Ross on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
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NC Senator Richard Burr defeats Deborah Ross on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

Updated on Jan. 25.

Sen. Richard Burr’s 2016 re-election campaign worked with the National Rifle Association’s political and lobbying arms on television ads in violation of federal election laws, a new complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleges.

The complaint comes from American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC that opposes Republican candidates, through its partner organization, the American Democracy Legal Fund.

American Democracy Legal Fund filed its complaint Wednesday against three Republicans who ran for office in 2016 and 2018. It alleges that the Burr campaign and the NRA’s Political Victory Fund worked together to “create, produce and distribute coordinated public communications in the form of television advertisements.”

(Updated on Jan. 24 to clarify who filed the complaint.)

Sen. Richard Burr Jacquelyn Martin AP

The complaint is based on a Mother Jones and The Trace story published earlier this month.

The group says that Burr and the NRA’s fund had similar television ads that aired on the same network (NBC affiliate WECT in Wilmington), during the same weeks, in the same time slots, using the same media vendor and the same person to authorize the media buys (Jon Ferrell).

“It’s a factless, baseless story. ... It lacks complete understanding of federal election laws,” Paul Shumaker, who was a campaign consultant for the Burr campaign, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a frivolous complaint.”

Shumaker said it is not unusual for large vendors to work for multiple clients in a federal election, adding that the companies have a responsibility for internal “firewall” agreements.

The FEC’s website contains a description of what it considers coordinated communications and how firewalls must be implemented. The firewall, the FEC says, “must be designed and implemented to prohibit the flow of information.”

Documents in the Mother Jones story and included in the FEC complaint show that Ferrell signed off on television ad purchases as the a representative of National Media on behalf of the Burr campaign on Oct. 12, 24 and 27 and Nov. 2, while signing on NRA-funded purchases through Red Eagle Media on Sept. 19 and Oct. 21.

NRA ad Ross (2)
In 2016, the National Rifle Association aired TV ads against Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross in her race against Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. Charlotte

Ferrell is the chief financial officer for National Media, “a nationally recognized leader in media research, planning, and placement for issue advocacy, corporate, and political campaigns,” according to its site.

Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, won a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2016, defeating Democratic candidate Deborah Ross by more than 5 percentage points. The NRA spent $6.2 million on Burr’s 2016 campaign, its largest-ever expenditure on a non-presidential race at that time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Burr had an A+ rating from the NRA in 2016.

The FEC is closed during the partial government shutdown. Its website says the “FEC will be unable to provide any services during the government shutdown.”

The complaint also alleges similar coordination with the NRA by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s 2018 campaign and the unsuccessful 2018 campaign of Montana Senate candidate Matt Rosendale. Those allegations were also detailed in the Mother Jones story.

“This isn’t a complaint. It’s a partisan press release rehashing tired and desperate false attacks in an effort to compensate for losses at the ballot box,” said Jessica Furst Johnson, counsel On Message, which advised the Hawley campaign, in a statement. “The Hawley campaign and its vendors take compliance very seriously, and maintained and executed comprehensive, compliant firewalls upon advice of counsel. Suggesting otherwise is nothing shy of an attempt to manipulate the legal process and the press for political gain.”

But the president of the American Democracy Legal Fund said the actions deserve scrutiny.

“Federal elections laws are clear: campaigns are prohibited from coordinating paid communications with outside groups like the NRA. That is exactly what the campaigns of Senators Burr and Hawley appear to have done. Their actions at the very least deserve scrutiny from the FEC,” American Democracy Legal Fund President Brad Woodhouse said in a statement.

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.