A non-profit attacking Kearney city council member Bob Lammers in his fight against businessman John Lowe for an open legislative seat in Nebraska’s 37th district has direct ties to a consulting company employed Lowe’s campaign. The group, Trees for Liberty, has paid for robocalls, mail pieces, and a so-called “issue ad” criticizing Lammers, all without being required to file any disclosure reports with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
The Omaha World Herald reported on Tuesday that a man named Alan Philp is a board member of Trees of Liberty. Philp is also the chief operating officer of Aegis Strategic, a political consulting firm that has been paid more than $8,000 for “consulting” by Lowe’s campaign since March. The most recent payment by the campaign to Aegis Strategic was made on October 13.
Trees of Liberty has even deeper ties with the consulting firm. The two organizations appear to share an office in Arlington, Virginia as Aegis Strategic’s address matches that of Trees of Liberty down to the suite number.
Aegis Strategic operatives helped fundraise for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) in 2014, and Sen. Ernst also received outside help from Trees of Liberty. CREW and the Center for Media and Democracy filed a joint IRS complaint in January 2016 against the non-profit group over its false representations to the tax agency about its 2014 political spending.
As a “social welfare” non-profit organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, Trees of Liberty is not required to disclose its donors. Tax filings, however, show that the group received $400,000 in 2014 from Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the central funding hub of the Koch brothers’ political network. Aegis Strategic, which has also been connected to the Kochs in the past but is reportedly on the outs with the network, was paid more than $1.28 million by Freedom Partners that year for “consulting.”
Another group with ties to both Aegis Strategic and the Koch network has spent money attacking Lammers to Lowe’s benefit. Last month, the Kearney Hub reported that Americans for Prosperity, the main political group in the Koch network, was responsible for at least three anti-Lammers mailings since May. The Hub noted the Lowe campaign’s payments to Aegis Strategic and reported that the consulting company’s president, Jeff Crank, is the former chief operating officer for Americans for Prosperity. Lowe told the newspaper that he was unaware of Aegis’ ties to Americans for Prosperity and that he worked with a local Aegis operative, Brad Stevens, not Crank. Stevens is a former state director for Americans for Prosperity’s Nebraska branch.
Lowe also told the Hub that he was aware of Stevens’ former role with Americans for Prosperity, saying, “These people are so intertwined with everything.” He also said he couldn’t “do anything” about the outside spending. “It’s illegal for me to contact them,” Lowe said.
It’s not unheard of for campaigns and outside independent groups to be linked through political consulting firms, though the overlap raises questions about the actual independence of those groups, even when there is a supposed “firewall” in place at the consultancies. Target Enterprises, for instance, the company of Republican operative Nick Ayers, is known for working on campaigns that are aided by outside groups that also have ties to Ayers.
It’s hard to believe that such situations are mere coincidences. Indeed, it appears that when some political consulting firms are hired, outside groups may be part of the deal.