When a shadowy group from Iowa called the “American Future Fund” began running an ad attacking Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and his family’s company, Pilot Oil, less than 24 hours after the final gubernatorial candidates debate last week, the timing and message were curious.
The content of the ad was “fair game,” as is said in politics. Portions of the group’s charges about claims of Pilot’s 2008 price-gouging in the wake of Hurricane Ike were exaggerated somewhat, but they were nothing that would have warranted investigation if the ad had run in the general election of a governor’s race.
But we are still the primary, and it was odd that a group from Iowa that bills itself as an organization that “advocates conservative, free market ideals” and typically sticks with national issues — always positioning itself on the political right — would wade into the middle of a competitive Tennessee Republican gubernatorial primary.
The City Paper has learned that the American Future Fund appears to share some DNA with the campaign of Haslam’s rival, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, and AkinsCrisp Public Strategies, a firm to which Wamp has significant ties.
As detailed in previous City Paper articles (here and here), AkinsCrisp is the public relations firm that works for the Wamp campaign, oversees the “Tennessee Valley Corridor” (which Wamp originally touted as his model for economic development statewide but has since ceased discussing in debates and ads), and employs Wamp’s son, Weston, paying him to work on his father’s campaign.
John Crisp, president and CEO of AkinsCrisp, leads the firm along with its chairman, Darrell Akins of Oak Ridge. Crisp has vehemently denied to The City Paper that there is any connection between the American Future Fund, his firm and the Wamp campaign.
Despite that denial, there are associations between American Future Fund, its primary backers and the Tennessee-based firm that may suggest why the group has taken an interest in this race.
A brief history
Within just a few days of the American Future Fund’s ad accusing Pilot Oil of price gouging, the Wamp campaign unveiled its own attack ad that uses similar language.
The City Paper asked Crisp, also a top adviser to the Wamp campaign, when the now-famous “Rusty” ad (view here) was produced; the newsweekly did not receive an answer. A source familiar with the governor’s race said that the script for the ad was in production well before the American Future Fund ad began to air, and that the spot was filmed in Chattanooga the day before the American Future Fund ad was released. While Zach Wamp wasn’t on hand for the shoot, his son Weston was.
Any collusion between a campaign and an organization that does independent expenditures to affect the outcome of an election would violate multiple state and federal regulations, and The City Paper cannot say with certainty that such a connection exists.
But there are enough associations to arouse suspicion.
The American Future Fund was incorporated in 2007 by an attorney with the Alexandria, Va.-based law firm of Holtzman Vogel. That firm is owned by two influential and well-known Republican operatives, Alex N. Vogel and his wife, Jill Holtzman Vogel.
Jill Holtzman Vogel is also a Virginia state senator, and she hired former Tennessee GOP chairman Tommy Hopper to consult on her 2007 race. Hopper served as chair of the party in 1993; he was forced out of the position by what he termed the “GOP money pigs,” a reference at the time to prominent Republicans like Nashville businessmen Ted Welch, the late Pat Wilson, and Knoxville businessman Jim Haslam. Hopper is currently the lead consultant on the campaign of Republican Stephen Fincher in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. John Tanner.
Vogel’s firm has been the lead for the American Future Fund’s lawsuits to overturn state laws that place limits on what are known as “robo-calls,” recorded messages that tend to focus on the negative aspects of the opponent of the candidate who pays for them. In addition to her work for the AFF on robo-calls, she also has worked with the robo-call firm Conquest Communications of Richmond, Va.
The campaign of Zach Wamp announced in June of last year that it, too, had hired Conquest Communications.
That isn’t much of a connection. But an examination of the American Future Fund’s IRS 990 form tells a bit more about the group and who is involved with it.
A 990 form is submitted annually by tax-exempt and nonprofit organizations; the group is chartered as a 501(c)(4), which means it does not have to reveal its contributors.
According to a 2008 report by National Public Radio, the group’s plan was to focus on U.S. Senate races. It has, with one exception: the attack on Haslam.
The group’s 2008 form (view it here), which is the only one available online, reveals that in that year, only five organizations were listed as independent contractors for the group. Three of those are based in the Washington, D.C. area, and one in particular lends credibility to the Tennessee connection.
A Republican fundraising organization called McKenna & Associates received $249,000 from the American Future Fund that year. That firm is led by Andrew McKenna, a GOP operative and former senior vice-president of DCI Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying, public relations and government relations firm heavily entrenched in GOP circles.
In addition to running the firm, McKenna is currently a partner in investment groups called GoodSijn Management, L.L.C., and GoodSijn II, L.P. His partners in what their website calls “the Fund” are Doug Goodyear and Tom Synhorst. Both Goodyear and Synhorst are long-time Republican activists and are listed as current partners in the DCI Group, McKenna’s former firm. (See partner lists here and here.)
The DCI Group is not your typical lobbying firm. In fact, it has been at the center of highly controversial tactics in politics over the past several years.
The Associated Press reported Oct. 20, 2008, that “Freddie Mac secretly paid a Republican consulting firm $2 million to kill legislation that would have regulated and trimmed the mortgage finance giant and its sister company, Fannie Mae, three years before the government took control to prevent their collapse.”
That firm turned out to be the DCI Group, whose chief executive, Doug Goodyear, was later hired to manage the 2008 GOP National Convention by the campaign of John McCain.
Goodyear found out later that his management of the DCI Group’s connection with Freddie Mac was the least of his worries, when Michael Isikoff reported in Newsweek that in 2002 DCI was paid $348,000 to represent Burma's military junta. "It also led a PR campaign to burnish the junta's image, drafting releases praising Burma's efforts to curb the drug trade and denouncing 'falsehoods' by the Bush administration that the regime engaged in rape and other abuses," Isikoff reported.
In the wake of this revelation, Goodyear resigned as manager of the Republican National Convention.
Connections to Wamp?
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the DCI Group also lobbies for a number of Tennessee clients in Washington, D.C.
Those clients include the City of Maryville ($290,000 from 2006 through 2008), Maryville College ($80,000 total for years 2004 and 2008), Lincoln Memorial University ($360,000 since 2006), and AkinsCrisp Public Strategies ($90,000 for 2007 and 2008), to name a few. Interestingly, all the clients listed here, save the last one, are also clients of AkinsCrisp. (See DCI financials here, AkinsCrisp client list here.)
The AkinsCrisp connection to DCI Group doesn’t end there.
Up until last week, when The City Paper questioned John Crisp about ties to the DCI Group, that firm was listed as one of AkinsCrisp’s four “associates” and company “partners” on their website. The site read: “Whether your situation calls for advertising, an online marketing campaign, lobbying efforts, relationship building or a combination of these services, AkinsCrisp can quickly pull together its partners, each with their own unique perspective, expertise, and solid relationships, to create a tailor made team and solution to fit your unique situation.”
The DCI Group’s name was removed from the website — both sections — after The City Paper began mining the connections.
“AkinsCrisp has not had a relationship with anyone at the DCI Group since 2008,” Crisp told the newsweekly. “However, it is our understanding that the DCI Group has had or currently has relationships with other public affairs firms based in Tennessee.”
Pressed further on the point, Crisp said: “That DCI listing is such an out of date item that I did not even realize it was still on a sub-page of our website … so I have asked our staff to take it down. That is a good reminder that we need to do a full review of all of our sub-pages for changes and updates, so thank you.”
Crisp characterized DCI as a “very large national public affairs/lobbying/PR firm” with a roster of big names. He referred to the arrangements DCI keeps with smaller, state- and state-capitol-based firms as “loose.”
“They often enlist the support of state PR firms to support their national client efforts in the states with regional/local media relations, special events, appropriations support, generating grasstops/grassroots awareness for the client interests, etc. in the states,” he said.
Crisp went on to name other Tennessee-based firms with which he believed DCI Group had contracted. Representatives of both Hall Strategies and Peritus confirmed to The City Paper that their firms had worked for DCI Group in the past. Mark McNeely of McNeely Piggot & Fox said his firm did some work for DCI Group “maybe 8 to 10 years ago.”
None of the other firms Crisp named had worked with DCI Group.
If AkinsCrisp had maintained a continuing relationship with DCI Group, it would have explained a lot. Despite its claim on its website that the firm offers “political and government consulting,” no one from AkinsCrisp is registered as a lobbyist at the state or federal level.
It would be a convenient — and legal — arrangement for DCI Group to lobby on behalf of AkinsCrisp and its clients, as the former employs registered lobbyists. It would also explain how AkinsCrisp and its clients gain access to, for instance, any congressional or senatorial office.
Jim Jeffries, spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander, confirmed to The City Paper that members of AkinsCrisp’s senior staff have talked with the senator’s staff in the past three years, including phone calls and emails requesting to discuss matters before Congress and federal appropriations.
Asked whether his firm had lobbied members of Congress, Crisp did not respond.
Lincoln Memorial University is one of AkinsCrisp’s clients. The small, private college was able to obtain a federal earmark in 2008 for $478,000 and another for $433,000 in 2009.
Both earmarks were added to the federal budget at the request of one member of Congress: Zach Wamp.
Asked by The City Paper in June whether the earmark request for Lincoln Memorial University originated from AkinsCrisp, Wamp’s congressional spokesperson never denied the connection.
“We have worked closely with Lincoln Memorial University and over the years have personally met many times with its officials,” said Laura Condeluci. “The initial mention of this request came from the LMU board of directors in a conversation with Rep. Wamp.”
The City Paper posed a series of questions to the campaign of Zach Wamp for Governor, the DCI Group and AkinsCrisp. They included inquiries — specifically to AkinsCrisp — about whether anyone at the firm has had contact with DCI Group, American Future Fund or Andrew McKenna in the past three months; who lobbies public officials on behalf of AkinsCrisp and its clients; and whether the firm has any direct associations with the law firm Holtzman Vogel or the polling firm Conquest Communications (hired by Wamp’s gubernatorial campaign in June).
The DCI Group did not respond. Sam Edelen, spokesman for the Wamp campaign, issued a blanket denial. And Crisp ended his correspondence with the following:
“I am responding to your questions only for AkinsCrisp, and let me reiterate again, AkinsCrisp had never heard of the American Future Fund prior to the initial press reports about that organization, nor did we have any direct or indirect meetings, conversations or communications about that organization with anyone we knew to be connected to it,” he wrote in an email. “Please be advised that after consulting with our attorney, we strongly encourage you to fully and completely source and document any allegations made to the contrary about AkinsCrisp.”