Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2018

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election 2012:

AFP advertises in state Senate races despite pending legal complaint

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An Americans For Prosperity mailer targets Sheila Leslie's economic policies.

Click to enlarge photo

An Americans For Prosperity mailer targets Sheila Leslie's economic policies.

Click to enlarge photo

The back page of an Americans For Prosperity mailer targeting Sheila Leslie's economic policies presents information about the organization.

The Nevada attorney general is reviewing whether Americans for Prosperity broke state campaign finance laws earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean the conservative group is going to sit out the election.

The political nonprofit group’s Nevada chapter is actively involved in two competitive state Senate races, sending mailers to voters attacking the Democratic candidates running in the districts that could determine whether Republicans take over the upper house.

A mailer sent to voters in southwestern Las Vegas’ Senate District 9 implies candidate Justin Jones would side with “Carson City politicians” who raise taxes and “spend your money.”

And in a particularly inciting mailer attacking former state Sen. Sheila Leslie in Reno’s Senate District 15, Americans for Prosperity superimposed Leslie’s head on the bodies of scantily clad fire dancers to criticize her for supporting a bill to regulate the artists.

Neither of the mailers explicitly says to vote against the candidate — or for their opponents — a technicality that would allow such political advertising in federal races without disclosure of who funded the group creating the ad.

But Nevada’s campaign finance laws require political organizations to register and disclose their donors if they produce advertising that can reasonably be interpreted as seeking to influence a specific campaign, according to Secretary of State Ross Miller.

Americans for Prosperity sent similar mailers attacking Democratic Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson in his primary campaign for Senate District 4. Those mailers prompted a complaint from the Nevada Democratic Party.

Earlier this month, Miller notified the nonprofit that he believes the mailers violated Nevada’s campaign finance laws and referred the case to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution.

That complaint is still pending at the Attorney General’s Office, and it’s unclear whether the latest mailers would be subject to the same legal action.

“We are aware of the mailers,” Deputy Secretary of State Scott Gilles said. “The Attorney General’s Office is still reviewing the complaints against AFP. No litigation has been filed to date.”

Americans for Prosperity’s Nevada director did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

But lawyers from the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters have vigorously denied violating any law. They interpret Nevada’s campaign finance laws similarly to the federal law, arguing the mailers don’t trigger Nevada’s disclosure requirements.

“Basically, we kept a close eye on the bills Ross had last year, and our lawyers are confident that we did not cross the line into express advocacy,” the group's Nevada director, Adam Stryker, said of the Atkinson mailers in July.

Americans for Prosperity is a conservative organization founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. It is widely credited with helping Republicans take over the House of Representatives in 2010 and has actively sought to keep its donors secret.

If the complaint against the group is successful, it could require the organization to disclose who funds it.

The mailers attacking Leslie single out legislation she supported streamlining permitting for fire dancers — an enclave of whom live and perform in Reno because of its proximity to Burning Man.

Leslie said the photoshopped pictures of her head atop fire performers' bodies have angered voters in her district.

“All my calls have been from outraged women,” Leslie said. “This is clearly about defeating me, but I think it’s having the opposite effect. It’s in very bad taste and bordering on offensive. It’s decided some people in my favor.”

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