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'Dark money' group tied to Ricketts family buys ads targeting State Legislature candidates

'Dark money' group tied to Ricketts family buys ads targeting State Legislature candidates

LINCOLN — A Virginia-based political committee with ties to the Ricketts family is running negative radio advertisements in two southeast Nebraska races for State Legislature.

The ads were criticized as inaccurate and improper meddling by outsiders during a press conference called Friday by the Nebraska Farmers Union. The Nebraska State Education Association also condemned the ads, which target two farmers who are challenging Ricketts-backed candidates.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, through a campaign spokesman, said he had never heard of the group until asked Thursday.

“This is nothing more than an inaccurate conspiracy theory from a group that has long opposed Gov. Ricketts,” spokesman Matthew Trail said.

The 10th Amendment Project, based in Herndon, Virginia, has paid for nearly $50,0000 worth of radio ads in the past week attacking candidates Myron Dorn of Adams in the District 30 race and Tom Brandt of Plymouth in District 32.

The organizations share the same treasurer as two other independent political committees, Future 45 and the 45 Committee, that raised $25 million in 2016 to support Republican Donald Trump by running negative ads against Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Joe Ricketts, the founder of Omaha-based TD Ameritrade and the father of Gov. Pete Ricketts, contributed $1 million to the Future 45 group, and Todd Ricketts, the governor’s brother, was a fundraiser for the organization, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group. The treasurer for the 45 groups, Maria Wojciechowski, is also the listed treasurer of the 10th Amendment group, which bought the ads in Nebraska.

John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which has endorsed both Dorn and Brandt, speculated that there is coordination between the Virginia group and the governor, who has endorsed and given money to other candidates in those legislative primaries.

"The folks who aren't getting attacked are the folks endorsed by Ricketts," Hansen said. "It all fits together too nicely to not be coordinated."

But Brian Walsh, the president of Washington, D.C.-based Future 45, said the group has no affiliation with the 10th Amendment Project and the only reason they share the same treasurer is because they employ the same firm to handle their campaign compliance and financial work. The firm has hundreds of clients, said Walsh.

Hansen, the Farmers Union Head, said it appears that the attacks ads are aimed at defeating two “moderate Republicans,” thus clearing a path to victory for the more conservative, Ricketts-backed candidates, Joe Murray of Firth in District 30 and Al Riskowski of Martell in District 32.

The 10th Amendment Project in Virginia did not respond to requests for comment. One email said that Wojciechowski was out of the country and would return messages later. Because it is an independent political group that does not specifically support a certain candidate, it does not have to register with the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission and identify its donors or say how it spends its money.

Karen Kilgarin, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Education Association, decried the use of a “dark money” group from outside the state.

The spending on radio advertising was found in documents filed with Lincoln and Beatrice radio stations. The media buys were made by Ax Media, a Kansas City-based firm that is also being used by the Ricketts campaign. Both Brandt and Dorn said that besides the radio ads, negative mailers were sent to voters in their districts this week.

Criticism of Ricketts’ involvement in state legislative races is not new. During the 2016 election cycle, he gave more than $116,000 to candidates, and he has been credited with helping defeat three incumbent Republican senators who had disagreed with him on key issues.

The 10th Amendment Project’s attacks, include accusing Dorn of paying his property taxes “late” multiple times.

Dorn called the attacks “half-truths and misleading” Thursday. He said that like many taxpayers, he doesn’t pay his property taxes prior to the Dec. 31 due date but waits to pay until just before the dates on which taxes become delinquent. Taxes paid after those dates are subject to fines and interest.

Gage County Treasurer Laurie Wollenburg confirmed that Dorn has never been fined or been forced to pay interest for being delinquent. Many taxpayers, she said, pay their property taxes in the same manner.

In the attack ad against Brandt, he was labeled a “millionaire” farmer who supported a tax reform plan that selfishly benefited himself. At Friday's press conference, he angrily disagreed. Due to the escalating price of farmland, any farmer who owned a quarter section of land would be worth more than a million dollars now, according to Brandt, who said many of his fellow farmers are offended by the label.

Brandt and Dorn said they supported tax reform plans that shift the tax load off of property and onto other taxes, namely sales and income taxes. Ricketts, a conservative Republican, has opposed plans that call for a tax shift, saying that they represent an increase in taxes.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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