Monday, Aug. 23, 2010 | 12:05 a.m.
PART ONE: The Back Story, Which You Have to Read Through Before We Can Get into the Juicy Stuff
I donated $35 to Tea Party of Nevada Senate candidate Jon Scott Ashjian. No, I'm not a Tea Partier; I'm a journalist who thought it'd be a good way to get an "in" with the campaign.
Six hours after I made the donation — this was back in mid-March — I got a personalized e-mail from Ashjian saying, "Richard, Thank You!! I will fight for you!!"
I replied with an e-mail applauding Ashjian for opposing tort reform, and asking him what I could do to help his campaign.
Maybe he was busy. Back then, Ashjian was appearing on Fox News, drawing double-digit support and posting fiery Facebook status updates: "Harry Reid is pushing this Health Bill!!! Obama will sign it for sure!!! Reid must GO!!!!! The only candidate that can stop him is ME! Scottashjianforsenate.com! I will Stop the madness come November 2010!!!!"
But Scott Ashjian had one small problem ... and it wasn't his painfully juvenile overuse of exclamation points; it was legitimacy. Prior to the campaign, he'd demonstrated no involvement with the Tea Party whatsoever.
Nobody had heard of the guy.
The media speculated that Ashjian was a secret liberal who'd entered the race to split the conservative block, siphon votes from the Republican candidate and get Harry Reid reelected.
To prevent that from happening, the conservative PAC Our Country Deserves Better/TeaPartyExpress.org spent $18,400 opposing Ashjian's campaign. And the conservative group Independent American Party of Nevada filed a lawsuit to get Ashjian's name off the ballot.
Ashjian won that lawsuit, maintaining that he was a legitimate Tea Party candidate who was "100 percent sure" he could win the Senate race "by a large margin."
And then, predictably, Ashjian's poll numbers dropped, along with his public profile. By late June, it seemed as though the Scott Ashjian narrative had come to an end.
But where I was concerned, it hadn't; things were just getting interesting ...
PART TWO: The Man Behind the Curtain
In early July, a question popped into my head: What happened to my $35 donation?
I e-mailed Ashjian and asked how my money had been used.
Again, he didn't reply.
It wasn't the first time a journalist had asked Ashjian about campaign finance. On Face to Face, Jon Ralston asked Ashjian whether he had put his own money into the race. Ashjian responded, "I have put my own money into it. I will continue to put my money into it."
"How much of your money are you willing to put in?" Ralston asked.
"Whatever it takes," Ashjian answered. "I believe that with friends and family and supporters we can put enough money into this race to beat Harry Reid."
How much did Ashjian spend and receive? I wondered.
So I went to the Federal Elections Commission website and pulled up Scott Ashjian's financial disclosure page. Under the heading "Contributions Made By This Candidate's Committees," I found this message: "No Contributions Have Been Made By This Candidate's Committees." Under the heading, "Individuals Who Gave To: ASHJIAN, SCOTT," I found the message, "The query you have chosen matched zero individual contributions."
But that's not true; I donated $35 myself!
Ashjian didn't necessarily violate FEC reporting requirements; maybe his campaign is so incredibly slight that it hasn't even triggered his reporting responsibilities.
The Campaign Guide for Congressional Candidates and Committees says, "An individual triggers registration and reporting responsibilities under the Act when campaign activity exceeds $5,000 in either contributions or expenditures."
So, is it possible that the man who put his own money into the race, the man who vowed to spend "whatever it takes" to win, the man who promised he'd get enough in donations from "friends and family and supporters" to win, the man who appeared on national TV, the man who was "100 percent" certain of victory, didn't even spend or receive $5,000?!
Ashjian clearly wouldn't answer that question for me, so I contacted the man who used to be behind the curtain: Ashjian's attorney and longtime friend Barry Levinson.
Levinson is listed as the secretary of the Tea Party of Nevada, the group that Ashjian made up to get his name on the ballot. That means Levinson is the guy who reports to the Secretary of State on behalf of the Tea Party of Nevada.
During my brief phone interview with Levinson, the local attorney did everything he could to distance himself from the Tea Party:
"I'm not a Tea Party guy," he told me, "I am exactly what I registered as. I vote for whoever I want to vote for ... But I'm a Democrat, and I vote for who I want to."
So, just to be clear, the secretary of the Tea Party of Nevada is "not a Tea Party guy."
"And what's going on with the Ashjian campaign?" I asked.
"I know about as much as you do," Levinson replied.
Article Five, Section 6 of the Tea Party of Nevada Constitution says the secretary's role includes, "recording, keeping and reporting the minutes of the state central committee and executive committee, safeguarding the non-financial records of the TPN, [and] seeing to the handling of a state party correspondence ..." It sounds like the secretary's job is to keep abreast of the goings on of Tea Party of Nevada.
So if Levinson is "not a Tea Party guy," and isn't even following Ashjian's campaign, then why did he go to so much trouble to help Ashjian get his name on the ballot?
Well, he didn't go to that much trouble at all. It was easy...
PART THREE: The Magic Number
Let's say you lived in Alabama. And let's say you were a political independent or third-party candidate (like Ashjian). To get your name on the ballot for U.S. Senate, you'd need to collect about 40,000 signatures. In North Carolina, you'd need about 85,000. If you lived in Arizona, you'd need about 20,000. In Maryland, you'd only need about 10,000. And in Colorado, you'd need a mere 1,000.
Pretty low, right?
Wrong. Colorado ain't nothin'; in Nevada, Ashjian needed only need 250 signatures to get his name on the ballot for national office.
And how'd he get the "Tea Party" name with no Tea Party credentials? Simple: Nobody stopped him. According to Nevada Secretary of State public information officer Pam duPre, "There are no restrictions in state law on political party names; individuals forming the party must simply file bylaws and constitution as required by state law."
Would you like to be the "Sin City Republican Party" Senate candidate? Two-hundred-fifty names. Hell, why not run as the "Barack Obama Party" candidate or the "Oprah Party" candidate? People like those two!
It's not hard to imagine that, in picking the "Tea Party of Nevada" name, Ashjian made a calculated decision. He heard "Tea Party" in the media every day, he saw Tea Party favorite Scott Brown take the Massachusetts special election and he struck while the iron was hot.
Was that the first time Ashjian made a calculated name-picking decision?
Maybe not ...
PART FOUR: The Counterfeit Boss
Back in 1994, Ashjian started the Nevada business A&A Asphalt Paving Company. That was seven years after Claude Winegard started the Nevada business AA Asphalt Sawing and Patching. Much like the Nevada Secretary of State, the Nevada State Contracts Board had no law stopping Ashjian from using the similar name.
According to Las Vegas trademark attorney Ryan Gile, "The Nevada Secretary of State, which issues company charters for corporations, LLCs and other business entities, does not make determinations about whether a particular name is confusingly similar under trademark law."
But how can that be? I mean, I can't open up a hamburger joint called McDonalt's or sell a soda called Pipsi — right?
"From a trademark law perspective," Gile explains, "the scope of protection afforded to a name like AA Asphalt Sawing & Patching is somewhat limited. The letters AA at the beginning of the company name would receive relatively weak protection given the large number of businesses that use A-prefixes in their names in order to be the first listed businesses in phone directories. Consumers recognize that many different companies will use A, AA, AAA, AAAA prefixes along with some descriptive business name. Accordingly, consumers are likely to view the two company names A&A Asphalt Inc. and AA Asphalt Sawing Patching as two separate companies."
But did customers see the companies as separate?
According to AA Asphalt, no.
I called AA Asphalt, and the man who picked up introduced himself as AA Asphalt owner Michael Walters. Walters had a lot to say about Ashjian and A&A Asphalt. He told me that lawyers mistake AA Asphalt for A&A Asphalt all the time:
"I just talked to the Marquis & Aurbach attorney today. This is the third time we've been involved with a complaint that was supposed to be directed at A&A Asphalt. Happens the same way every time: We get the paperwork, and it takes a year or two to get it all unraveled. We get sued for something, and once we get the contract, we see the job was done by A&A on Rainbow."
"Did the businesses ever get mixed up before the lawsuits?"
"Sometimes," Walters said, "we would receive his bills."
"Is that it?"
"A couple times, he'd get our checks. And he actually cashed them."
That's a damning charge, so a few days later, I called AA Asphalt back to ask for verification.
The man who picked up the phone introduced himself as AA Asphalt General Manager Vern Peden.
I asked Peden if he could confirm what Walters had told me about A&A wrongly cashing AA's checks.
"Absolutely," Peden replied. "At a minimum, I remember it happening twice."
But when I asked Peden if he remembered the names of the companies that sent the checks, he said that he didn't. And when I asked Peden if he kept any documentation of the transactions, he said he didn't.
I told Peden to have Walters call me back, and he assured me that Walters would.
I got a phone call 10 minutes later, but it wasn't from Walters. It was from Peden. And what Peden said shocked me:
"Mike Walters and his brother are the owners of AA Asphalt. You haven't talked to either one of those people. I'm the general manager of AA Asphalt. And all the info you've got is from me."
"You mean, you were pretending to be Walters?"
"I'm surprised you didn't recognize my voice."
"I'm surprised you pretended to be your boss."
"I felt guilty there for an instant, and I want to set the record straight. I do have a little bit of ethics. That's why I called you back. And I have been with the company since its inception — it's not like I just fell off a turnip truck — so I might have misled you on who you were talking to, but that's it, but everything I told you is the truth."
A couple days later, I spoke with AA Asphalt controller Dave Sterns, who explained why Peden had pretended to be his boss:
"Vern tried to represent that he was Mike because Mike asked him to."
"Mike asked him to?"
"Well," Sterns replied, "not in that particular situation. But we get a lot of calls from people who say, 'I want to talk to the owner,' and usually they got something to sell, and Vern will say, 'I'm the owner, I'm not interested. It's what we consider a nuisance call."
Sterns then sent me an e-mail in which he fleshed out the charges made by Peden:
"Bardon Materials, subsidiary of Frehner Construction & affiliated with Southern Nevada Paving, on numerous occasions, invoiced AA Asphalt for material or services belonging to A&A Asphalt Paving Company in error. Bardon Materials, when notified, always corrected the errors on a timely basis ... We also experienced this problem with Wells Cargo on more than one occasion ... Our accounting department advised me that on more than four occasions (approximately 1995 thru 1997) our customers sent checks due to us to A&A Asphalt Paving Company in error. In each instance A&A Asphalt Company deposited our checks in their account or held them without notifying anyone ..."
I sent a message to Ashjian about this, and got no response.
I told trademark attorney Ryan Gile about the alleged confusion, and this was his reply:
"While the trademark protection afforded to a company that calls itself AA Asphalt Sawing and Patching is somewhat weak, that does not preclude the company from enforcing what limited trademark rights it has in order to prevent consumers from being confused. And according to what you told me, there has been evidence of actual confusion — this favors AA Asphalt."
Of course, an AA v. A&A lawsuit is purely hypothetical. AA Asphalt doesn't have the evidence necessary to mount a lawsuit, and the statute of limitations has surely passed, and, well, Ashjian doesn't have the money to be sued.
In February, the Nevada State Contractors Board revoked Ashjian's license for "failure to establish financial responsibility" and "fraudulent or deceitful acts." The board had received five complains about defaulted payments, totaling $37,000. Ashjian didn't respond to the board, and he didn't attend the board hearing at which the complaints were supposed to be discussed, so he now faces an additional $2,648 in fines and investigative costs.
And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Ashjian was served with a $200,000 IRS lien two years ago; three of his properties were served with default notices, and Ashjian's family trust failed to pay its homeowners association dues; Ashjian's property debts have nearly hit the $1 million mark; and the University of Iowa is trying to get out of a deal it made with Ashjian's energy drink company, TNT Energy Productions.
Ashjian, though, says, "We haven't had financial problems and we haven't had any situation that we haven't been able to resolve."
So, what's really going on?
I needed to find a straight shooter who could tell me what, exactly, was really going on with Scott Ashjian and his Senate campaign.
Let me introduce you to the man I found ...
PART FIVE: The Pitchman Steps In
On July 31, Ashjian finally got in touch with me — by returning one of my Facebook messages:
"Hi Ricky. Please contact my new campaign manager Gene Burns ... He will get your questions to me and get you some answers!"
Burns is a real-estate guru, an infomercial pitchman minus the infomercial. His website's homepage features a blog post from March 2007 titled, "If You're Not Investing in Real Estate With Me Now, You'll Hate Yourself Later." According to the post, real estate is a "A Fail Safe Investment Strategy" that will give you "A HUGE Return on Your Investment, Guaranteed to make you smile like a Cheshire cat."
I mentioned that Burns wrote this blog post in 2007, yes?
I contacted Burns ... but not to make an investment; I contacted him with questions about the Ashjian campaign. I asked him about campaign finance, the candidate's relationship with the Tea Party and the allegedly wrongly cashed checks.
Burns's first e-mail to me: "Hi Rick, I will get these to Scott!"
His second: "I am pushing him."
His third: "I am trying to get you answers by this evening."
His forth: "I am pushing Hard to get your answers."
His fifth: "Man ... I will call him."
His sixth: "He told me to wait."
His seventh: "Ok. Can talk tomorrow"
His eighth: "Rick, can we do this over the phone, or do you want a face to face?"
His ninth: "Can I get you a sit down on Monday?"
His 10th: "I will see him in one hour and try to set this up for you."
His 11th: "I will push for this!"
His 12th: "Scott will talk to you today and address these issues."
His 13th: "Yes. I will get back to you at the best time for Scott today. Thanks for being flexible!"
Burns never got back to me with that time. And something tells me he never will.
Is Ashjian really a secret Harry Reid supporter who's trying to split the vote? Let's look to Ashjian's own words.
1.) When Jon Ralston asked Ashjian whether he was a Reid footman, Ashjian replied, "I've never met Harry Reid. Don't plan on meeting Harry Reid. Don't like Harry Reid. Never have seen Harry Reid in person."
The fact that Ashjian hasn't met Harry Reid, doesn't plan on meeting Harry Reid (irrelevant speculation) and has never seen Harry Rein in person (means the same thing as "hasn't met") proves nothing. A lot of Reid supporters have never met Reid. And a lot of people who oppose Reid have met him.
2.) When Fox News asked Ashjian whether he was concerned about splitting the vote, Ashjian responded, "I don't think that splitting the vote is even an issue."
Sure, vote splitting isn't an issue with the Ashjian campaign; it's the only issue. Ashjian was playing dumb. And as of August, Ashjian is done playing dumb on this issue. He's now admitting that vote splitting is an issue. An August 10 Ashjian campaign press release reads, "Scott remained quiet to allow [GOP challenger] Sharron [Angle] to muster everything she had to demonstrate she could beat Harry Ried [sic] in November without the distraction of a 3rd candidate. He wanted to see if Sharron could dominate Reid in the polls and not try to split the conservative vote."
Those two statements are incriminating, but far from conclusive. They don't prove that Ashjian is a secret Democrat or a Reid footman.
My theory? I think Ashjian entered the race to distract Nevadans from his financial woes and troubled business dealings. I think he didn't want to be known as the guy who couldn't pay his bills; he wanted to be known as Nevada's third-party senatorial candidate. I think when Ashjian first entered the race, Barry Levinson was the only one who realized the incredibly important (and incredibly obvious) vote-splitting implications of Ashjian's bid.
But what matters isn't why Ashjian entered the race; what matters is that Ashjian is still in the race. He's still fighting and still claiming to represent the Tea Party.
True, Ashjian won't get many votes in November. But neither did Ralph Nader, back in 2000 — and we all know how that one turned out. So if Harry Reid wins the election by fewer votes than Ashjian receives, then Scott Ashjian won't go down in history as the guy who couldn't pay his bills, the guy who had his business license revoked or the guy who stole the Tea Party name; he'll go down in history as the guy who gave Nevada's 2010 U.S. Senate election to Harry Reid.
— Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly