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Dark Money Trail

Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson files a complaint to untangle a complex campaign-finance web

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Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson hit her Republican challenger, Tanner Bell, with an 11-page complaint last week alleging a number of campaign-finance allegations, including coordination with an independent-campaign committee.

Bronson, who is seeking a fifth term on the Board of Supervisors, said that she filed the complaint with the Arizona secretary of state because she was concerned about the way that the independent committee has been raising money from unknown backers and running negative ads against her.

"I'm fed up with this kind of politics," Bronson said. "We don't have real debates. We have mudslinging. And we don't know who's behind anything. ... There's no transparency and there's no informed debate. And at some point, the voters have a right to know."

Bell, a former UA football player who is making his first run for public office on the GOP ticket in the Democrat-leaning District 3, called the allegations a "politically motivated" effort to avoid discussion of issues facing Pima County.

"Unless and until I have a request from the requisite governmental agency requiring a response I have no response today except that the claims are baseless," Bell said last week via email.

The campaign-finance complaint builds on stories first reported in the Tucson Weekly in July and August. "Whose Bright Idea," July 19, and "The Bright Stuff," Aug. 2.)

The complaint, filed by attorney Vince Rabago on behalf of Bronson, primarily focuses on the activities of Restoring Pride in Pima County, a political committee that has received the bulk of its funding from Arizonans for a Brighter Future, according to campaign-finance reports.

Arizonans for a Brighter Future is a nonprofit "business league" established in Delaware that does not have to reveal its contributors. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, such nonprofit organizations—similar to Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS—have become conduits of so-called "dark money" that is raised anonymously and used to influence elections via advertising.

Restoring Pride in Pima County had spent $8,299 through Sept. 17, according to campaign-finance reports filed with Pima County. New reports are due this week.

The Bronson complaint alleges that Restoring Pride in Pima County is not independent of Bell's campaign because it is using a political consulting firm, TagLine Media, which had been working directly for Bell until earlier this summer.

Deb Weisel, who owns TagLine Media, told the Weekly that she severed her ties with Bell's campaign (as well as with the campaigns of District 1 candidate Ally Miller and District 5 candidate Fernando Gonzales) when she began working for Restoring Pride to Pima County and Arizonans for a Brighter Future.

Rabago said that the law does not allow TagLine to simply stop working for candidates and then begin working for independent campaign committees.

"You can't basically be someone's campaign consultant and then turn off the switch and say, 'Now I'm working for these guys.' That's just not how it works," Rabago said.

Before severing ties with Bell's campaign, TagLine pasrovided him with more than $10,000 in services, according to campaign-finance reports. As of his most recent report, covering activity through Sept. 17, Bell still owed TagLine $3,705.

Bronson's complaint alleges that the outstanding loan is "in effect an extension of credit to the candidate to help influence the election, which makes those amounts immediately reportable as contributions. A corporate contribution is both illegal and also violates the contribution limits, and Vote Tanner Bell has also unlawfully failed to disclose such contributions."

But Weisel said that she frequently extends credit to candidates during campaigns.

"That's how businesses work," Weisel said. "It's with everyone. I start off with a campaign, we'll do a design for you, we'll build a basic website, we'll do a logo. And then when all's said and done, pay us two grand. Or whatever it is we do for the candidates. ... They have a certain amount of time before their bill is past due."

The complaint also alleges that Arizonans for a Brighter Future has violated Arizona's campaign and nonprofit statutes, as well as federal campaign law.

Federal law allows 501(c)(6) nonprofits to engage in political activity, but that cannot be the sole purpose of the business league. The Bronson complaint alleges that Arizonans for a Brighter Future has no purpose other than engaging in political activity.

The complaint also alleges that Arizona law requires charitable, nonprofit organizations to register with the Arizona secretary of state before raising funds in the state.

But Michael Farley, the local business investor who is behind Arizonans for a Brighter Future and chairman of Restoring Pride in Pima County, dismissed the complaints as a "smoke screen" that had no validity.

"They don't want to talk about real issues," said Farley, who is in a dispute with Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry over the future of the intersection of Kolb and Valencia roads, where Farley would like to build a shopping center.

Farley added that he had spent more than $30,000 on legal fees to ensure that he had followed federal and Arizona law to the letter.

Farley said that he had no plans to reveal the identities of his contributors.

"I'm the first guy that's ever challenged Pima County and the people who run the place," he said. "I was able to form this organization legally and people can contribute to it legally. And I got a lot of contributions because they all want to keep their names quiet. And the reason is, they have businesses here and they know what Democrats do: (They) retaliate and ruin their businesses and make it difficult for them to move."

Rabago calls the influence of this kind of "dark money" a growing problem in American politics.

"This is a sham corporation," Rabago said. "The fact that they've filed paperwork, paid for it, claim to be a tax-exempt corporation doesn't make it so. We know that it was just an effort to evade disclosing who was funding this election effort. That's the sort of dark, dirty money that we don't need in politics."

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