On Wednesday, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonpartisan research group that tracks and reports on the influence of campaign contributions and public policy, published an explosive report, revealing new details about the ways in which Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign has used a “shell company to funnel money to ad buyers allegedly at the center of an alleged illegal coordination scheme with the NRA.”
During the past two weeks, CRP, which publishes the website OpenSecrets, conducted its own investigation into the Trump campaign’s spending and a cabal of intimately-connected political consulting firms and a previously unknown “ad buy” company, Harris Sikes Media LLC.
The Bayou Brief has uncovered substantial and previously unreported evidence that reveals this cabal has unusually significant ties to Louisiana-based political consultants, campaigns, and elected officials, including state Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Additionally, The Bayou Brief has also discovered documented evidence that Red Eagle Media Group, the entity responsible for allegedly coordinating campaign ad-buys on behalf of the National Rifle Association, first conducted the same type of work for the NRA during the 2014 U.S. Senate race between Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy.
Two years ago, Missouri state attorney general and U.S. Senator-elect Josh Hawley, a Republican, began raising questions about the group of companies that are now being accused of breaking multiple federal campaign finance laws, among other things.
But even before that, in 2015, in an article for The Independent concerning Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign, I raised similar questions about illegal coordination about the exact same network of consultants, working out of the exact same office building.
“I believe this pushes the envelope beyond breaking,” Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told me about the evidence that Jindal’s campaign and SuperPAC may have engaged in illegal coordination. Subsequently, a source with direct and detailed knowledge of the arrangement provided me with corroborating information, but because Jindal dropped out of the campaign before the Iowa caucus, the story died along with his bid for the presidency.
The recent allegations are serious, and as reported by The Trace, they primarily involve coordinated ad buys from both the National Rifle Association and the Trump campaign, made by one group of political consultants, all operating out of the same office, yet using different names to obscure their relationship with one another.
“This is very strong evidence, if not proof, of illegal coordination,” Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, told The Trace. “This is the heat of the general election, and the same person is acting as an agent for the NRA and the Trump campaign.”
The Trace and Mother Jones worked together on an intensive investigation in an effort to unravel the murky web of connections between the NRA and the Trump campaign. Their first report was published on Dec. 6th , and the very next day, the Campaign Legal Center and the Giffords Law Center filed a complaint with the FEC.
“This is some of the most compelling evidence we’ve ever seen of illegal coordination The NRA can legally make unlimited expenditures to support the Trump campaign only if the organizations are completely independent,” Brenden Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center said. “But if the same people buying ads for the Trump campaign are also placing the NRA’s pro-Trump ads, then the NRA’s spending is not at all independent”
CRP’s report, written by Anna Massoglia, notes that Harris Sikes has “no website or public-facing facade whatsoever” and that it appears to be the conduit through which political consultants accused of illegal coordination are being paid. Those consultancies include but are not limited to National Media, Red Eagle Media Group, and American Media & Advocacy Group. While those companies are largely unknown, they all share the same building in Alexandria, Virginia with Harris Sikes and a company well-known to every political observer in Louisiana, OnMessage, Inc.
OnMessage is the same firm that ran Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign and his SuperPAC. Its founder, Curt Anderson, is credited as the co-writer of Jindal’s first book, and one of its senior partners is Timmy Teepell, who I profiled in a 2015 article for Salon. Teepell worked as both Jindal’s campaign manager and then chief of staff before becoming a partner at OnMessage.
(Massoglia incorrectly reported that Harris Sikes listed a nonexistent address as its location; it is, in fact, in the same building as the other entities).
As an example of the type of illegal coordination alleged, as The Trace uncovered, at least two recent purchases made by both the NRA and the Trump campaign, were actually authorized by the same person, Jon Ferrell, but through different company names, one from Red Eagle- on behalf of the NRA- and the other from National Media- on behalf of the Trump campaign.
In her report for CRP, Massoglia reveals another astonishing detail, but she would have been on the verge of uncovering a lot more if she had just dug in a little deeper and hadn’t been thrown off by an incorrect address listed in one of the filings.
“The only other political ad disclosures in FCC records dating back to 2015 that mention Harris Sikes Media are for Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) and Louisiana Rising, the political action committee associated with Scott Angelle’s failed gubernatorial campaign,” she reports (emphasis added).
Massoglia gets one detail wrong: In 2015, Landry was no longer a member of Congress; he had been defeated in his bid for reelection three years prior by Rep. Charles Boustany.
So, in order to verify the claims, The Bayou Brief conducted a comprehensive search of all publicly available records and filings with the FEC, the FCC, and the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
Massoglia may have gotten his job title wrong, but it is true that then-candidate for Louisiana state attorney general Jeff Landry and the PAC affiliated with Scott Angelle (who was appointed by President Trump as the Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement) are the only two political candidates who are connected with the “shell company” other than Trump.
According to campaign filings made on behalf of the Landry campaign with the Federal Communications Commission, Harris Sikes was his “ad buyer.” In fact, Jeff Landry was the firm’s first client.
Harris Sikes officially incorporated on May 15, 2015. Landry’s first filings with the FCC were submitted in September of 2015. However, they were already signed and prepared months beforehand.
The person who signed on behalf of Harris Sikes and Landry: Jon Ferrell, the very same consultant who was specifically mentioned in The Trace‘s investigation of illegal coordination between the Trump campaign and the NRA.
While Landry told one thing to the federal government, he told another to the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
Harris Sikes Media, which FCC filings claim received a 15% commission for their work, does not appear in any campaign finance report Landry submitted to the state.
Instead, the Landry campaign claims to have employed the services of Littlefield Consultants, a DC-based boutique firm led by Brent Littlefield. The front page of Littlefield’s website includes only one example of the company’s work: A screen capture of a television commercial Landry aired in his 2010 campaign for Congress.
Notably, the same building that is home to the slew of interrelated and interchangeable political consultancies and “ad buyers” also lists as its tenant the lobbying organization Purple Strategies, which has been accused of deceiving the public about its work with the NRA while also working for Everytown for Gun Safety, the nonprofit pro-gun control advocacy group.
In a 2015 article in The Intercept, Lee Fang reported that Purple Strategies, which was created in 2008 when National Media “merged” with a Democratic firm, was, effectively, just another member of the same cabal of Republican consultants, despite their attempts to assert some sort of plausible deniability. Quoting (emphasis added):
The NRA’s relationship with Purple and National Media is obscured through a network of affiliate companies. But documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission show that the NRA regularly buys political advertising through American Media & Advocacy Group and Red Eagle Media, two firms that share an address in Alexandria, Virginia, with Purple Strategies and National Media.
Records maintained by the Alexandria Circuit Court reveal that Red Eagle Media is an “assumed or fictitious” business created and owned by National Media. Robin Roberts, a co-founding partner of Purple Strategies and the president of National Media, registered the name.
FCC documents show that NRA ad buys made by Red Eagle Media and American Media & Advocacy Group were signed by Jon Ferrell, who is listed as an employee of National Media. Business filings show that National Media’s board includes Robin Roberts and Alex Castellanos, both of whom are founding partners of Purple Strategies.
Although court records claimed that Red Eagle Media was merely an “assumed or fictitious” business, according to FCC filings, they officially got their start in Louisiana’s 2014 election for U.S. Senate, as the ad buyer for one of the NRA’s most egregious and misleading campaign commercials of all-time.
The ad, titled “Defend Freedom, Defeat Mary Landrieu,” was uploaded onto the NRA’s YouTube channel on Sept. 24, 2014 and subsequently aired throughout North and Central Louisiana.
At the same time, in the same building, Timmy Teepell and OnMessage were rolling out a series of polls that ensured Louisiana voters believed the three-term incumbent Sen. Landrieu was vulnerable to a challenge by then-Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Teepell, only two years prior, had been hired by Cassidy to run his reelection campaign for the House. This is how Jonathan Tilove, then of The Times-Picayune, opened his report on the hire (emphasis added):
Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, has hired Timmy Teepell, best known as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s top strategist, to guide his 2012 re-election effort, prompting speculation about a possible 2014 challenge to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. “This is the only 2012 campaign I’ll be doing in the state,” Teepell said Tuesday, adding: “This one’s special to me. I live in Baton Rouge. Bill is, I think, a great congressman. We’re good friends. And so it’s always enjoyable to work with your own congressman on their re-election effort.”
Once Cassidy had won reelection, Teepell’s company almost immediately began floating their own polls about Cassidy’s prospects as a challenger to Landrieu to a pliant Louisiana press.
And by pure coincidence, Teepell’s colleagues down the hall at the fictitious business Red Eagle scored their first contract: purchasing ads for the NRA opposing Mary Landrieu’s reelection.
Note the date of this particular contract: Sept 24, 2014:
Shortly after Teepell officially left the Jindal administration as a public employee, other members of the “Jindal machine,” including Timmy’s brother Taylor, followed suit and moved to Florida to help Rick Scott in his reelection campaign.
The Florida media referred to the group as “the Louisiana mafia.” Scott, of course, won his reelection campaign, and OnMessage earned a cool $3.9 million.
Since then, it’s become increasingly more difficult to know exactly how much is being earned by the cabal of consultants all headquartered out of the same brick building on Slaters Lane in Alexandria, Virginia.
But this much is certain: You can’t tell the story of Trump 2020 and the NRA without first understanding the tricks of the trade of the “Louisiana mafia.”
“(Timmy) Teepell says he was with Jindal at that NRA convention in Indianapolis, when Maria Butina — now accused of being a Russian spy– asked to have her picture taken with the governor,” Susan Roesgen of WGNO reported earlier this year in a story written in collaboration with The Bayou Brief.
Teepell was in Missouri when Roesgen called him for an interview. He was there to help Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Josh Hawley, the same Josh Hawley who started asking questions two years ago about the people who worked together on Slaters Lane.
Additional research provided by Sue Lincoln.