GOP Rep. John Sweeney’s ad goes after his opponent, first-time House candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, with a half-dozen accusations layered over a soundtrack that’s somehow both scary and sad. The ad tars Gillibrand with everything from taking illegal contributions to hiring a consultant tied to the Abramoff lobbying scandal to making children cry at a Sweeney rally, and more.
Gillibrand’s campaign staff calls this “the spaghetti ad,” as in, “throw everything at her and see what sticks.” That’s a fair assessment. All of the charges, in our judgment, are either exceedingly misleading or downright baseless. Some of them list no backup citations, which is unusual for ads in this campaign cycle and makes them difficult for the average viewer to research. The Sweeney campaign did not respond to numerous phone messages we left inquiring about this ad.
The Sweeney-Gillibrand race has drawn national attention for being so negative. We take the ad’s allegations in turn.
The ad begins with the announcer saying, “Kirsten Gillibrand hides tax records to cover up questions she refuses to answer.”
On screen are the words “conflicts of interest” and “Overseas Dubai Transactions” with “Intercar LLC, Glen Falls Post-Star 10/26/2006” below.
It’s true that Gillibrand has not released her tax returns, as some candidates choose to do voluntarily. But it’s misleading to say she’s “hiding” them, since there’s no legal requirement for her to make them public.
Her campaign says she “has released all appropriate and adequate financial paperwork.” She’s right in that by submitting a financial disclosure form to the Clerk of the House Gillibrand has released all the financial information that’s required of her, including her own and her husband’s incomes, stock holdings and other assets and obligations.
As for “conflicts of interest,” the Sweeney ad doesn’t even make clear what those might be, and the Sweeney campaign won’t say. Any potential conflicts should be discernible on her form, which is publicly available, although not on the Internet.
The use of quotation marks around “Overseas Dubai Transactions” makes it seem as though those words appeared in the Post-Star. But that phrase was not in the paper in any story about Gillibrand on that day, or any other day, according to a Post-Star staffer who conducted a computerized search of the newspaper’s back issues at our request. On the date given in the ad, just one article and one letter to the editor referring to the Sweeney-Gillibrand race appeared, and neither of them mentioned “Intercar” or “Dubai.” According to the Gillibrand campaign, Intercar is a company that hosts an annual classic car show in Florida, and the candidate’s husband is a managing director. It has no connections to Dubai, a campaign spokeswoman said.
Adding insult to injury, this part of the ad even misspells Gillibrand’s first name.
A War Profiteer?
“Conflicts of Interest”
Announcer: Kirsten Gillibrand hides tax records to cover up questions she refuses to answer. She profits off the sacrifice of fallen soldiers,
(On Screen: “Gillibrand’s BAE Stock Soars”)
Announcer: while supporters take shots at a mom whose son will never return. She’s caught taking illegal contributions but refuses to return the money.
(On Screen: “Gillibrand Ignores FEC Demands”)
Announcer: Keeping an adviser with ties to Washington scandal, her campaign invades a Sweeney rally where women are bullied and children left in tears.
(On Screen: Women for Sweeney Rally, 10/15/2006, Wilton, NY )
Announcer: Gillibrand has disgraced all of us.
Sweeney: “I’m John Sweeney and I approve this message.”
Paid For By: Sweeney for Congress
Next is a charge the Sweeney campaign has used before: Gillibrand “profits off the sacrifice of fallen soldiers.” Earlier ads from Sweeney have called Gillibrand a “war profiteer.” This characterization is unfounded. The claim is based on the fact that Gillibrand’s husband Jonathan, an engineer, worked at British Aerospace (BAE) until 1998 and as a result has a retirement account that includes the company’s stock. BAE’s stock, like that of many defense contractors, has increased in value since military operations began in Afghanistan and then Iraq. But we judge it to be a real stretch to call ownership of a defense contractor’s stock, purchased years before any war broke out, “war profiteering.”
For one thing, Gillibrand’s profit is only on paper. The campaign says he hasn’t sold any shares. So it’s not as though the stock was purchased in anticipation of military operations and then cashed in after a run-up in value. That might be called “profiteering” but isn’t what happened here.
By the way, Sweeney’s own campaign has accepted $2,000 from BAE’s political action committee this election cycle and $2,000 during the 2004 cycle.
Harassing a Fallen Soldier’s Mom?
Next, the ad says that supporters of Gillibrand “take shots at a mom whose son has never returned,” as the words “anonymous calls” and “nasty letters” appear on the screen. The mother the ad is referencing is Kathy Brown, a registered Democrat and Gold Star mother who, despite her opposition to the war in Iraq, is supporting Sweeney. She appeared in a separate campaign ad endorsing him.
The Gillibrand campaign said any “nasty letters” and “anonymous calls” that Ms. Brown supposedly was subjected to did not come from the candidate or her staff. Gillibrand released a statement earlier this fall saying she “extends her sympathies and condolences to Ms. Brown and joins all New Yorkers in honoring her son’s sacrifice.” The ad says Gillibrand’s “supporters” were to blame, a claim we found difficult to check. A political reporter at the Glens Falls newspaper that is cited on the screen said he was unaware that Ms. Brown had been harassed.
Dirty Campaign Money
The Sweeney ad’s allegation that Gillibrand was “caught taking illegal contributions but refuses to return the money” refers to two letters from an analyst at the Federal Election Commission to the Gillibrand campaign in recent months. The letters are requests for additional information (RFAIs) about entries on her campaign finance reports to the agency.
Among the matters the agency asks about are contributions from 12 individuals or political action committees that appear to be larger than the $2,100 and $5,000 allowed, respectively, by law. The agency often permits candidates to remedy excessive contributions by re-attributing them to family members of the donors, by reallocating them to other elections (for instance, a primary rather than a general) or by refunding them. Gillibrand filed amendments to her FEC reports that appeared to take care of the problems noted by the agency.
Taking illegal contributions is a serious offense, and a serious allegation. In Gillibrand’s case it is false. RFAI letters are several steps away from findings of illegality, and they are not orders to refund the contributions. They are also not uncommon, as Sweeney should know. His campaign has received 2 RFAIs in the last two election cycles. Another way of looking at it: So far in the 2005-2006 cycle, about 14,000 RFAIs have been sent out, according to FEC spokesman Bob Biersack.
Adviser Tied to Scandal
The ad claims that Gillibrand is “keeping an adviser tied to a Washington scandal.” That refers to Howard Wolfson, a principal of the Washington-based Glover Park Group who has been working for the Gillibrand campaign. But saying Wolfson is “tied” to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal is a little like saying the ankle bone’s connected to . . . the toothbrush. In the past, the Glover Park Group, a lobbying and consulting firm, had occasionally been a subcontractor to a similar, more Republican firm called Alexander Strategy Group on lobbying projects. Glover Park was paid by Alexander Strategy for those projects, though the funds actually came from its clients. That all ended when Alexander Strategy went out of business earlier this year, engulfed in the Abramoff mushroom cloud; the firm’s biggest rainmakers had close ties to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Abramoff, connections that were highly valued in Washington once upon a time.
According to Glover Park partner Joel Johnson, Wolfson never worked on the joint projects, nor does he lobby. Wolfson is an old hand on political campaigns, most prominently those of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Moreover, for Sweeney to accuse Gillibrand of being tied to the Abramoff scandal is odd, since it invites attention to his own, much closer connection. Recent news reports have focused on a trip he took in 2001 to the Northern Mariana Islands, an Abramoff client, with Tony Rudy, a former top staffer for DeLay who worked with Abramoff before becoming a partner at Alexander Strategy. Rudy pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges earlier this year in connection with Abramoff’s actions.
The ad ends by saying that the Gillibrand campaign invaded a “Sweeney rally where women are bullied and children are left in tears.” The Sweeney campaign has provided us with no evidence to back up this claim, and the Gillibrand campaign calls the allegation “completely false.” According to a Gillibrand spokeswoman, nobody from the Gillibrand campaign even attended the Sweeney rally. Joe Seeman, an activist who was at the rally, told Factcheck.org that five protesters (including himself), none of whom were connected to Gillibrand’s campaign, were outside of the event and acted “non-violently, respectfully, and legally.” The Sweeney campaign did not return our numerous telephone calls to ask about this charge and the others in the ad.
-by James Ficaro & Viveca Novak
Watch Sweeney Ad: “Conflicts of Interest”
Benjamin, Elizabeth. “Sweeney Touts Anti-War Mom’s Support,” The Times Union, 17 Sep 2006.
“Sampling of Editorials from Upstate New York,” The Associated Press State & Local Wire. 11 October 2006.
O’Brien, Tim. “Gillibrand challenges Sweeney to meet,” The Times-Union. 14 Sept. 2006.
Benjamin, Elizabeth. “Sweeney asks for clarity on rules,” The Times-Union, 19 Oct. 2006.