Ron Johnson

A complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleges the National Rifle Association violated U.S. law by using a common vendor to illegally coordinate with Ron Johnson’s 2016 campaign and three other Senate campaigns.

The complaint was filed by the Campaign Legal Center, which has been at the forefront of the campaign in Wisconsin for fair maps and fair elections.

Federal campaign finance law prohibits coordination between candidates and outside groups such as the NRA.

In an effort to preserve independence, FEC rules limit how a vendor can work for both a candidate and an outside group supporting that candidate.

CLC, citing a July 13 report by Politico Magazine, says the GOP consulting firm OnMessage set up a shell corporation called Starboard. The corporation was located at the same site as OnMessage and was virtually indistinguishable from its parent firm.

Starboard’s apparent purpose was to help the NRA evade FEC rules. As a result, the NRA may have made millions in illegal and excessive in-kind contributions, according to the CLC.

“There is substantial evidence that the NRA funneled millions through a shell corporation to unlawfully coordinate with candidates it was backing,” stated Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the CLC. “The NRA using inside information about a candidate’s strategy to create ‘independent’ ads supporting him creates an unfair advantage and it violates the law.”

The NRA’s lobbying arm and PAC contracted with Starboard to create ads supporting Johnson in 2016, as well as U.S. Senate candidates Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner and Thom Tillis in 2014. Johnson has an “A” ranking with the gun rights group. 

The Senate candidates, meanwhile, hired OnMessage, according to the CLC.

The NRA essentially is Starboard’s only client, with the exception of a small job for the Republican National Committee. OnMessage repeatedly has taken credit for advertisements the NRA paid Starboard to produce.

The NRA PAC and its lobbying arm have “illegally made excessive, corporate and unreported in-kind contributions to the Thom Tillis Committee, Cotton for Senate, Cory Gardner for Senate, and/or Ron Johnson for Senate Inc.,” the CLC states in the complaint.

The complaint says that in the 2016 election cycle, the NRA PAC paid $315,066 to Starboard for independent expenditures supporting Johnson or opposing his opponent. Also, its lobbying arm paid $48,537 to Starboard for Johnson’s independent expenditures.

Meanwhile, according to the complaint, Johnson’s campaign committee, Ron Johnson for Senate Inc., reported paying OnMessage $3.8 million during the same cycle for “placed media,” “strategy consulting,” and other services.

The campaign reported disbursements to OnMessage at its Annapolis, Maryland, offices.

The NRA lobbying arm also reported disbursements to Starboard at the same address on its reports in the 2016 cycle, including for its independent expenditures supporting Johnson.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, groups such as the NRA only can make unlimited expenditures if they are independent of the candidates they support, Fischer said.

“It falls to the FEC to enforce the laws that preserve that independence and prevent corruption,” he said.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. 

In 2016, Johnson defeated Democrat Russ Feingold with 50.2 percent of the vote. Feingold won 46.8 percent.

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