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Updated Oct 26, 2012, 6:38 pm Originally posted Oct 26, 2012, 5:23 pm
Tanner Bell, a Republican candidate for the Pima County Board of Supervisors, has benefited from improper coordination between political consultants and campaign committees, a complaint filed Friday by incumbent Democrat Sharon Bronson alleged.
The complaint, sent to Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett and other officials, asked for an investigation into Bell's campaign, the "independent expenditure" committee Restoring Pride in Pima County, the nonprofit business league Arizonans for a Brighter Future, and TagLine Media Group, an advertising and political consulting firm.
Bell, who's seeking to end Bronson's 16-year tenure as a county supervisor for District 3, has benefited from what Democratic attorney Vince Rabago called "not just normal political shenanigans," Democrats said.
Rabago, who prepared the 13-page complaint for Bronson's campaign, said Friday that Bell has been helped by "outside dark money, and unregulated political committee activity."
Bronson's campaign manager, David Steele, said Bell has benefited from at least $23,000 spent by outside groups in support of his run for office. That was for just one TV ad buy, Steele said, saying there have been other ads and mailers as well.
"The claims are baseless," Bell said Friday afternoon, calling the complaint "a politically motivated, last-ditch effort to keep Sharon in office for 20 years."
Calls to Michael Farley, a developer who founded Arizonans for a Brighter Future, were not returned Friday.
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Deb Weisel, the owner of TagLine, dismissed the complaint.
"You can file a lawsuit against anyone you want," she said Friday afternoon. "There isn't a campaign that goes by that the Democrats don't file a lawsuit or complaint."
"We're honest to a fault," Weisel said, describing her firm as "just a vendor."
"It's like if we were a mailing house. Would it be wrong for the committee to use the same mailing house as Tanner?," she said.
TagLine was the subject of election-related complaints filed earlier this year by Republican candidates Mike Hellon and Stuart McDaniel and Democratic candidate Nancy Young-Wright.
The complaint filed by Bronson alleged that:
"The campaigns are not independent (as required by law)," Rabago said in an interview.
"Money spent by purportedly independent election committees is an in-kind contribution (to Bell)," he said.
Bell said he's had "absolutely zero" contact with TagLine since they dropped him as a client to work for Arizonans for a Brighter Future. He also said he's had no contact with the organizers of that group.
"I've met (Michael Farley) maybe once," he said. Bell said he didn't know why Farley's group was spending tens of thousands to support him, as the Democrats contend. Trade groups are allowed to spend money on lobbying, and a limited amount on candidates, but can't legally focus on supporting or defeating individual candidates without violating tax laws.
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Arizonans for a Brighter Future has not disclosed its donors.
Bell acknowledged owing money to TagLine, saying he's working to pay down the debt. He said he's had no contact with Weisel since TagLine stopped working on his campaign.
"Owing me money and me doing work for (Bell) are two very different things," Weisel said. "You know how it can be, trying to get people to pay you."
"It is what it is," Weisel said of the complaint. "I don't call the shots."
While Bell said the investigation request is "last-ditch," Rabago and Steele denied that the complaint is an "October Surprise."
"Putting all the stuff together took time," Rabago said.
"It was filed when it was ready," Steele said in a Friday interview.
"The amount of coordination between the independent committees and the campaign itself is extraordinary in my view," Steele said.
"It's ham-handed and just wrong," he said, calling the alleged efforts by the groups "an attempt to evade election laws."
"If our elected officials took this stuff seriously, they'd get involved," Steele said. "But election laws and disclosure laws are not sexy stuff."
Rabago called the alleged activity the "toxic byproduct of Citizens United and Karl Rove-style politics."
"For democracy to work, everyone has to play by rules," Bronson, said in a news release. 'We cannot allow these shady groups and their big money backers to skirt the law. I am happy to do my part to see that they are stopped.'
The legal complaint didn't include all of the connections between Bell and TagLine.
An "organizational chart" released Friday by the Pima County Democratic Party detailed the alleged relationships between the subjects of the complaint (see image in sidebar). The chart included an allegation that a TagLine employee, Christina Cruz, is being "laundered" through another company Weisel owns while she works on Bell's campaign.
Cruz, who some Democrats have described as now "working as the manager of the Vote Tanner Bell Campaign," worked on Bell's campaign for TagLine.
Cruz, who did not respond to a request for comment, is no longer an employee of TagLine, Weisel said. Instead, she works for car audio installer The Specialists — a business co-owned by Weisel and her husband.
Weisel said she doesn't know much about what she described as "my husband's business," but said that Cruz "does social media for some of my clients, mainly for The Specialists."
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Weisel said that Cruz doesn't do political work for Bell "on the Specialists' clock."
Bell said that Cruz "isn't my campaign manager, Sherry Potter is." Cruz "does some social media stuff for us, Facebook, etc.," he said.
Bell's most recent campaign finance statement included $500 paid directly to Cruz for consulting work.
Another Internet-related connection between Bell and TagLine is his campaign website. Weisel is listed on Internet whois records as the administrative and technical contact for votetannerbell.com. TagLine is listed as the registrant.
Internet regulations require domain registration records to be kept up to date.
"I'm not 100 percent sure about the technical stuff," Bell said. "I know we can update the site without contacting (TagLine). Beyond that, I'm unsure about those issues."