Fair Play? AG race gets nasty and may be crossing legal lines

Fair Play? AG race gets nasty and may be crossing legal lines

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – With just a few days to go until the June 5 primary election, the campaign mudslinging is in full effect.

Negative attack ads can be seen on television, heard on the radio, read in the mail, and even patched through to your phone. Many times campaigns wait until late in the cycle to run negative ads because that’s when voters are paying the most attention and it leaves the target of the attack unable to respond effectively.

Some voters disapprove of candidates “going negative,” which can result in residual backlash for the candidate launching the attack. That’s partly why outside organizations are so often the source of negative ads. Because these political committees cannot coordinate with campaigns, a candidate can avoid being blamed for slinging mud. It’s perfectly legal, so long as they follow all the rules meant to ensure the public knows who is paying for the ads.

One such group is starting to raise a lot of questions both about the veracity of its attacks and the legality of its origins.

A group called Fair Play Alabama is running attacks against Attorney General Steve Marshall on the radio, over the internet and through automated phone calls. The ads claim Marshall is related to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and somehow tied into their gambling interests, which he categorically denies.

The Fair Play Alabama ads caught the attention of Birmingham talk radio hosts Matt Murphy and Andrea Lindenberg Friday, who criticized the substance and nature of the ads on the air.

“We heard this ad and pinpointed it as one of these that comes every four years, really late in the cycle,” Murphy said. “It comes about a week or so out, and they do that so that you don’t know who is paying for the ad.”

Murphy went on to speculate that either the Troy King or Alice Martin campaigns were behind it. Spokespeople for both campaigns say unequivocally that they are not. The conversation starts at about 19:00:

So, who is paying for the Fair Play Alabama ads? The disclaimer at the end says the group’s address is 1755 Corner Road in Warrior, Alabama. That’s the home of Brad Unruh, who formerly worked as a political consultant on efforts to expand casino gambling.

Reached by phone Friday, Unruh said he was asked to use his home address as the location for the ad’s disclaimer but had no ownership or role in Fair Play Alabama. He did say “Troy King had nothing to do with it,” and “you should talk to Claire,” referring to Alice Martin campaign adviser Claire Austin, with whom Unruh also used to work.

There are a few reasons it would make sense if Claire Austin was involved with Fair Play Alabama. She previously promoted the group’s now-defunct website on Twitter. Earlier in the campaign, Austin also denied having ties to a website attacking Troy King that was registered under her boyfriend’s name. And, coincidently, the anti-King website and the anti-Marshall website were registered in the same way on the same host server and have other similarities.

However, Austin says the Fair Play Alabama group is not hers. “I can assure you it is not,” she said Saturday.

That’s good because, as an adviser to the Alice Martin campaign, Austin is prohibited from directing or coordinating with an outside group on political ads.

The state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act forbids campaigns from directing or coordinating political advertising with “independent” outside groups without disclosing it as an in-kind contribution. There is no such disclosure listed on the Martin campaign’s latest finance reports.

But that’s not the only legal problem at play here. If the group truly is independent and there was no coordination between opposing campaigns and Fair Play Alabama, then the group itself still might be in trouble because, as of now, it has not disclosed its electioneering communications expenditures to the Secretary of State’s office, as required by law.

Violations aren’t a slap on the wrist, either. If you get caught breaking the Fair Campaign Practices Act you could face up to one year in jail and a fine of $6,000. That’s to say nothing of the damage done to your reputation in politics.

Campaigns tend to get chippy toward the end, and most observers expected this Attorney General race to become heated. But the fact that the race for the state’s top law enforcement officer may now be crossing legal lines is a development few expected.

“Despicable.” A low blow in the AG’s race