A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Toss-ups: Missouri Mudslinging

Blunt and Carnahan swap distorted claims of wrongdoing.


Summary

Ethics has become a theme in the Missouri Senate race, and we find that both candidates are distorting the facts in TV ads that make accusations of serious ethical lapses:

  • Republican Rep. Roy Blunt claims without evidence that Democrat Robin Carnahan’s brother Tom received $107 million in stimulus funds as a “pay off” for Robin supporting President Barack Obama’s economic package and for her brother’s help in raising money for Obama’s 2008 campaign. It’s true a company founded by her brother received stimulus funding for a wind farm project in Missouri, but there is no evidence that Robin Carnahan had anything to do with it, or that Tom Carnahan got a “special deal.”
  • Carnahan, Missouri’s secretary of state, misleads viewers in an ad that suggests Blunt was involved in a pay-to-play scandal that resulted in several convictions – including that of a California businessman and congressman. Blunt accepted campaign contributions from the businessman and companies affiliated with him, but he was never charged with any crime. And there’s no evidence he did anything wrong.

Note: This is the third in an occasional "Toss-ups" series, in which we will focus on ads appearing in the tightest Senate races.

Analysis

Blunt’s ad — "Where’s my stimulus?" — first aired Sept. 30. It trots out a collection of facts, but then races to a faulty and misleading conclusion.

[TET ]

Blunt for Congress TV Ad: "Where’s My Stimulus?"

Announcer: They promised jobs. Instead we got generations of debt. Where’d our money go? Ask Robin Carnahan. Her brother’s wind farm got over a hundred million stimulus dollars. How? Robin Carnahan campaigned for Obama and the stimulus. Her brother lobbied for his special deal and was a top Obama fundraiser. The payoff: Over a hundred million dollars. The Carnahans get a real windfall. We get the bill — and no jobs.

[/TET]

After questioning the value of the stimulus legislation, the Blunt ad asks: "Where’d our money go? Ask Robin Carnahan. Her brother’s wind farm got over a hundred million stimulus dollars." True enough, but why ask Robin Carnahan about it?

A Treasury Department website shows that as of Oct. 4 more than $5.2 billion in payments were awarded more than 1,000 companies nationwide, including $107 million to Lost Creek Wind in Missouri — a project of the Wind Capital Group. The company was founded by Tom Carnahan, who serves as the president and CEO. The payments were given in lieu of existing tax credits for renewable energy projects. Treasury says qualified applicants receive payments "generally equal to 10% to 30% of the basis of the property, depending on the type of the property." Lost Creek Wind was awarded the 12th largest payment.

The ad asks how this happened. That’s when Blunt resorts to innuendo.

The ad claims that Lost Creek Wind received the money because "Robin Carnahan campaigned for Obama and the stimulus" and "her brother lobbied for his special deal and was a top Obama fundraiser." As one would expect, Democrat Robin Carnahan, the state’s secretary of state, campaigned for Obama when he was the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. And she did express general support for the stimulus package, if not for the specific details of Obama’s plan, according to an Associated Press article cited by the Blunt campaign.

It’s true, too, that her brother Tom was a "top fundraiser" for Obama. He was listed by the Obama campaign as a member of Obama’s presidential National Finance Committee. Those listed raised between $50,000 and at least $200,000 for the campaign. Whitehouseforsale.org also listed Tom Carnahan as an Obama "bundler," saying he raised at least $100,000.

But where’s the evidence that this support resulted in a "pay off"?

When we asked the Blunt campaign that question, we were directed to an August 2009 article in the Irish Independent. In an e-mail, Blunt campaign spokesman Rich Chrismer claimed the article shows an executive of NTR, the parent company of the Wind Capital Group, "admitting the ‘fortuitous’ and ‘convenient’ timing of their partnership with Carnahan." However, those words were the reporter’s, not the company executive’s. There is simply no evidence of a quid pro quo.

No Truth to ‘No Jobs’

Finally, the ad claims that the stimulus resulted in "no jobs," an absurd statement given that constructing and operating a wind farm without employing anybody is an impossibility.

Wind Capital Group states that the Lost Creek project (with a total cost of $300 million) was the largest private sector investment made in the state of Missouri in 2009 and that it generated 2,500 U.S. jobs "throughout the supply chain." It says an average of 300 persons a day worked at the site while it was being constructed between July 2009 and mid-2010. Plus, it says that generators were built in the U.S. by General Electric and transformers were made at a facility in Jefferson City, Mo.

More broadly, as we’ve said before, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the stimulus increased overall U.S. employment by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million people, compared with what would have happened without the stimulus spending.

Guilt by Association, Part 2

Carnahan followed with an attack ad of her own that similarly strings together facts in a way that invites viewers to reach a false conclusion.

[TET ]

Robin Carnahan for Senate Ad: "Days Later"

Announcer: A California company gets a million-dollar congressional earmark. Eight days later, Roy Blunt gets $13,000 from company executives, even though they’d never given to him before. Blunt then flies repeatedly on their corporate jet. The chief executive is convicted of bribing another congressman. But Blunt uses congressional immunity to avoid testifying. Do you think Roy Blunt has Missouri values?

[/TET]

Carnahan’s ad, “Days Later,” was launched Oct. 4. It attempts without enough evidence to tie Blunt to the pay-to-play scandal that sent former California congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham to jail. 

Some background: Cunningham was sentenced in March 2006 to eight years in prison after he admitted to taking $2.4 million in bribes from California businessman Brent Wilkes in exchange for helping Wilkes’ companies land defense contracts. Cunningham is serving his sentence in the U.S. Penitentiary at Tucson, Ariz. Wilkes pleaded not guilty, and his case went to trial. He was convicted Nov. 5, 2007, on 13 felony counts and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, although he remains free pending an appeal. 

The case put a spotlight on the practice of earmarks — which are projects inserted by lawmakers into annual appropriations bills. Carnahan’s ad starts out by saying Wilkes’ company received “a million-dollar congressional earmark” and “days later … company executives" contributed $13,000 to Blunt’s political committees.

It is true that Wilkes’ company, ADCS Inc., received a $1 million earmark. The ad cites a Feb. 5, 2006, San Diego Union-Tribune story that mentions the earmark. It is also true that Blunt’s leadership PAC, Rely on Your Beliefs, received $11,000 in campaign contributions on Oct. 18, 2002, from ADCS’ political action committee and two executives at Wilkes-owned companies — Max Gelwix and Paul E. Smithers. Mitchell Wade, a consultant at MZM Inc., who was identified as a co-conspirator in the Cunningham bribery case, contributed $2,000 that same day.

But is there a connection between the earmark and the contributions? In fact, the San Diego Union-Tribune story cited by the Carnahan campaign undercuts the ad’s allegation in two key ways. The article says:

  • "There is no indication that any legislator other than Cunningham made illegal deals with Wilkes."
  • Rep. John Doolittle of California, a member of the powerful appropriations committee, was "a key backer" of the $1 million earmark to ADCS. (The article says nothing of any role Blunt played in securing the earmark.)

The Union-Tribune article focuses on Wilkes’ generous campaign contributions and the timing of those contributions. His company’s PAC and executives gave more than $600,000 to members of Congress from 1995 to 2005, the paper said. Blunt received a sliver of that money compared with lawmakers in California, where Wilkes lived and worked:

Union-Tribune, Feb. 5, 2006: The biggest beneficiary was House Appropriations Committee member John Doolittle from the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay, who received at least $82,000 from Wilkes, his close relatives, employees and business partners. Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis of Redlands received $60,000. Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, got $39,200.

One last thing about the earmark: The defense bill that contained the earmark passed the House by a vote of 409 to 14. Blunt voted in favor of the appropriations bill, as did Carnahan’s mother, then-Sen. Jean Carnahan, when the bill came up for Senate approval.

Corporate Jets and Subpoenas

The ad builds on this faulty premise by going on to charge that Blunt flew “repeatedly on [the company’s] corporate jets.” This is an exaggeration.

While it is true that Blunt frequently used corporate jets — or did before their use was effectively banned by House rules in January 2007 — campaign records show that Blunt’s leadership PAC made one payment for $1,054 in 2002 and two others totaling about $400 to a company (Group W Advisors) related to Wilkes. At the time, House rules dictated that congressman pay private companies at least “the equivalent first-class airfare” for travel on non-commercial flights, and that’s what Blunt did.

Next, the ad shows side-by-side images of Wilkes and Blunt and says: “The chief executive is convicted of bribing another congressman, but Blunt uses congressional immunity to avoid testifying.” This is more innuendo from the Carnahan campaign. Blunt himself was not under investigation; he was called as a defense witness.

Blunt was one of 13 members of Congress who were subpoenaed to testify by Wilkes’ attorney. But making the claim that Blunt used his congressional power to avoid testifying — without mentioning the other 12 members of Congress — suggests Blunt had something to hide and skirted the law to avoid justice. After consulting with House lawyers, all 13 declined to comply with the subpoenas. According to the Associated Press, the House attorneys determined that the "Constitution protects members of Congress from being forced to disclose communications that are part of their official duties." Wilkes’ attorney eventually dropped the request.

The bottom line: Blunt never faced any criminal or even ethics charges related to Wilkes, and to suggest that he did is misleading. As the Cunningham case proves, "congressional immunity" cannot save a member of Congress from going to jail.

— by Melissa Siegel, Kelsey Ferguson and Eugene Kiely

Sources

U.S. Department of the Treasury. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. "1603 Program- Payments for Specified Energy Property In Lieu of Tax Credits." 26 Aug 2010.

Home. Wind Capital Group. Accessed 4 Oct 2010.

About Us, Leadership. Wind Capital Group. Accessed 4 Oct 2010.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. "Payments for Specified Energy Property in Lieu of Tax Credits." Mar 2010

Lieb, David A. "Carnahan Expresses her Support for the Stimulus Plan." Associated Press. 8 Mar 2009.

"Sweet: Obama, at Sun-Times request, releases names of finance committee members, Senate interns." Organizing for America. 24 Mar 2008, accessed 4 Oct 2010.

"Bundler: Tom Carnahan." Whitehouseforsale.org. Accessed 4 Oct 2010.

Mulligan, John. "NTR looks Stateside for further growth in sun and wind projects." Irish Independent. 6 Aug 2009.

About Us. Wind Capital Group. Accessed 4 Oct 2010.

Chrismer, Rich, deputy campaign manager, Roy Blunt for Senate. E-Mail sent to FactCheck.org. 1 Oct 2010, 30 Sept 2010.

Graham, Brian, press secretary, Robin Carnahan for Senate. E-Mail sent to FactCheck.org. 1 Oct 2010.

"Wind Capital Group’s Work in Missouri." Press release. Wind Capital Group. 30 Sep 2010.

Goldman, Joshua. "Did the Stimulus Create Jobs?" FactCheck.org. 27 Sep 2010.

Archibold, Randal C. "Ex-Congressman Gets 8-Year Term in Bribery Case." New York Times. 4 Mar 2006.

Carless, Will. "Ex-Contractor Is Convicted in Bribery Case." New York Times. 6 Nov 2007.

Eggen, Dan. "Defense Contractor Sentenced to 12 Years for Bribery." Washington Post. 20 Feb 2008.

Federal Election Committee. "Reports Image Index for Rely on Your Beliefs." Accessed 11 Oct 2010.

Babcock, Charles R. "Contractors Linked to Bribery Case Worked Together." Washington Post. 30 Nov 2005.

Federal Bureau of Prisons. "Inmate locator: Randall Harold Cunningham." Undated, accessed 12 Oct 2010.

Smith, R. Jeffrey and Derek Willis. "Hill Leaders Often Take Corporate Jets." Washington Post. 5 May 2005.

U.S. House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. "Use of Non-Commercial Aircraft is Generally Prohibited." Undated, accessed 11 Oct 2010.

Center for Responsive Politics. "Rely on Your Beliefs Expenditure Detail." 10 Oct 2002. Accessed 11 Oct 2010.

Center for Responsive Politics. "Rely on Your Beliefs Expenditure Detail." 12 Apr 2004, 16 Apr 2004. Accessed 11 Oct 2010.

Hoffman, Allison. "House wants bribe case subpoenas quashed." Associated Press. 27 Sep 2007.

Carnahan for Senate. "Days Later — Carnahan for Senate — :30 TV" Undated, accessed 11 Oct 2010.