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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McConnell Fudges Facts in Attacks on Bevin

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has gone to great lengths in ads — both Web and paid — to discredit the conservative credentials of his Republican primary challenger Matt Bevin. But his attacks have often stretched the truth or outright misled viewers.

  • A TV ad paints Bevin as a serial tax delinquent on his business and vacation home. But a town manager credited Bevin with resolving the company’s tax problems after taking control of the family business, and a tax collector said a change in mortgage companies was to blame for a missed property tax payment on the vacation home.
  • In campaign ads, on Twitter and on a dedicated campaign Web page, the McConnell campaign has tagged his opponent “Bailout Bevin” — a moniker that refers to Bevin’s companies accepting $200,000 in state grants. But the aid came after the company was destroyed by a fire, and at the urging of town and state officials who sought to preserve jobs and a local historic treasure.
  • A Web ad repeats a video clip of Bevin saying, “We’re on the same team here,” to a group of Democrats at a political event. But the quote is taken out of context. Bevin made a comment about Kentucky being a great place to live and joked that it was OK for Democrats to support that sentiment.
  • The Web ad strings together out-of-context facts to challenge Bevin’s conservative credentials. It claims Bevin “effectively supported” Democrat John Kerry because he backed a third-party presidential candidate in 2004. It also says he donated to two Democrats, which is true, but one of them was a founder of the Louisville Tea Party.

Although a Republican poll commissioned in late July showed McConnell with a commanding lead over his Republican primary challenger, it is clear the Senate Republican leader is taking nothing for granted. The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The race is still very early — this is a 2014 election — but already the barbs are flying from both sides. Last month, we looked into a fundraising email from a conservative group that made a misleading claim that McConnell “funded the implementation of Obamacare.”

Tax Delinquent?

Although Bevin has tried to position himself to the right of McConnell, the latest TV ad from the McConnell campaign contends that “Matt ‘Bailout’ Bevin” is “not a Kentucky conservative,” and that Bevin has a recurring tax delinquency problem.

The ad begins with a clip of Bevin saying, “I have no tax delinquency problem, nor have I ever.” The ad then flashes a stack of delinquency documents, as the narrator states, “But Bevin’s business failed to pay taxes at least eight times, and was the No. 1 tax delinquent.” The image on the screen qualified that claim, saying: “No 1 tax delinquent in his area.” According to the ad, “Bevin also failed to pay taxes on his million-dollar home in Maine.”

We’ll start with the vacation home in Maine. The McConnell campaign supplied documentation showing that Bevin missed a 2007 property tax payment on his $1.25 million vacation home in Greenwood, Maine, and owed $6,244. The Bevin campaign chalked this up to a mix-up with a new mortgage company that failed to contact Bevin. The McConnell campaign notes that a lien was sent to Bevin’s house in Louisville, “so it would have been hard to miss.” But according to Greenwood Tax Collector Kimberly Sparks — via a letter supplied by the Bevin campaign — the lien notice sent in June 2008 “was returned from the Post Office as unclaimed.” Wrote Sparks:

Sparks, July 19: I remember Mr. Bevin contacting the office in January of 2009 inquiring about the status of his taxes as he was concerned that his accounts were paid by his new mortgage company. He was surprised to learn of the two tax liens and said he would contact his escrow agent to get them paid. By February of 2009, both liens were paid by national City Mortgage and were discharged by the Town. Mr. Bevin has always paid his taxes on time with this one exception with a new mortgage company.

As for the business tax delinquencies, the McConnell campaign also provided us with documents showing a series of tax liens filed against Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Co. of East Hampton, Conn., for unpaid local and federal property taxes in 2008 and 2009, in amounts ranging from $22 to $12,642 owed to East Hampton Township and over $74,000 owed to the IRS. It’s true that in May 2011, the $116,684 owed in local taxes made the company the “Top Delinquent” in East Hampton Township at that time. The official documents don’t tell the whole story, though.

According to the company website, Bevin Brothers has been in the bell manufacturing business in East Hampton, Conn., continuously since 1832. But in 2008, the company was in disarray. Doug Dilla, a general foreman at the company, said in a letter provided by the Bevin campaign that he reached out to Matt Bevin in 2008 because Bevin’s uncle, who owned the company, was having health issues and “there was no top level management to step in and run the company.” According to Dilla, “The company was in debt and was not meeting its obligations.” Dilla states that Bevin “stepped in and started putting money and expertise into the business,” though it wasn’t until August 2011 that he formally took over the company from his uncle.

The McConnell ad loops a quote from Bevin stating, “I have no tax delinquency problem, nor have I ever.” Bevin’s fuller quote appeared in The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., on July 24: “I have no tax delinquency problem, nor have I ever. If he [McConnell] was more capable in doing his research on me as a candidate, he would have realized that I have cleaned up other people’s tax delinquency problems.”

Bevin’s contention that he acted to rectify an inherited tax delinquency problem jibes with a statement released by East Hampton Town Manager Michael Maniscalco — at the unanimous direction of the town council — in which he says that having the company’s taxes paid in full has been a priority for Bevin since he arrived on the scene in 2008.

Maniscalco, Aug. 15: Since 2008 Matt Bevin has been working with the Town to get delinquent taxes at the Bell factory paid in full. These delinquent taxes were prior to Mr. Bevin having an ownership interest in the company. It is our understanding that Mr. Bevin took ownership of Bevin Bell in August 2011. At that time the company owed the Town in excess of $180,000 in back taxes. By April 2012, delinquent taxes for the Grand Lists of 2005-2010 were paid in full. Having the taxes paid in full has always been a priority of Mr. Bevin.

As noted by our colleague at the Washington Post, Fact Checker Glenn Kessler, various news articles describe Bevin as president much earlier than August 2011 — including a December 2008 profile in Business First, a Louisville business journal. Bevin campaign officials say they aren’t sure why news reports got it wrong, and that Bevin slowly became more and more involved with the company after he first loaned it money in 2008. But they maintain he was formally elected company president in August 2011. Within nine months, the delinquent tax bills to East Hampton were settled in full. The federal taxes owed by the company were paid by November 2012.

Now, about that nickname the McConnell campaign keeps using

‘Bailout Bevin’

On May 27, 2012, just two months after the town manager says the company fully met its local tax obligations, the bell factory was destroyed in a fire — believed to have been caused by lightning. In addition to the bell factory, the fire destroyed PSI Plus, a manufacturer of compressed gas cylinders, in which Bevin had a minority share.

A couple of days after the fire, the Hartford Courant reported that “although [Bevin] had insurance to cover some of the lost business, and to cover liability, he did not have a policy to replace this ancient mill complex. No company would insure the buildings for a price that made sense, he said.” Around the same time, Bevin told the Middletown Press that the cost of insuring the 130-year-old building was prohibitive and was so expensive he wouldn’t have been able to provide for the company’s approximately 25 employees. “This state is full of 19th Century mills like this that are uninsurable,” Bevin told the Press. “That’s just life; that’s no one’s fault.”

A month later, Bevin told the Courant he had business interruption insurance, but the insurance company considered his massive metal presses so depreciated that the coverage only valued them for scrap. “On paper it’s not worth anything, but in reality it’s worth everything, it’s what allows you to make things,” Bevin told the paper.

In the days after the fire, Bevin vowed to do whatever he could to save the bell business, even though it was not terribly profitable. Less than two weeks after the fire, Bevin created a website “Keep the Bells in Belltown,” in which he sought public donations to “Help Save Bevin Bell.”

According to Maniscalco’s letter, a week after the fire an official with the Connecticut Department of Community and Economic Development reached out to East Hampton officials to discuss ways they could provide assistance to the beleaguered company. Maniscalco says that was a big priority for the town both economically and historically.

Maniscalco, Aug. 15: East Hampton CT is known as “Bell Town” due to its rich history in bell manufacturing. With the steady decline in US manufacturing East Hampton has seen its bell manufacturers disappear one by one. Bevin Bells is the last bell factory left in Bell Town. The Bell Factory and its continued operation is integral to our community fabric.

The state stepped forward with $100,000 matching grants for each of the two businesses: Bevin Brothers and PSI Plus. According to a press release from the state, Bevin Brothers used its grant to purchase machinery and equipment “so that its 12 full-time and three part-time employees can begin producing bells as soon as possible.”

Whether that amounts to a “bailout” is a matter of opinion. For his part, Bevin notes that McConnell voted for the bailout, the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

The ‘Same Team’?

On Aug. 12, the McConnell campaign released a 75-second Web video (reported in Politico) again attacking Bevin’s conservative credentials. Upon closer inspection, however, almost all of the evidence cited in the ad proved misleading.

The video begins by stating, “Matt Bevin wants you to believe he’s a tea party conservative, but tells Kentucky Democrats, ‘We’re on the same team here. I’ll tell you that much.’ ” The quote from Bevin is repeated several times in the ad. But it is lifted badly out of context.

Bevin was speaking at Fancy Farm, an annual Kentucky political picnic attended by both Republicans and Democrats. Bevin spoke after McConnell, but before Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose supporters were seated to Bevin’s right.

At one point in Bevin’s speech, he mocked McConnell: “He likes to brag about how Kentucky is a place where people come to end their lives. That was his exact quote. I’m running for U.S. Senate because I’m living proof of — and I want people to know — that Kentucky is a place for people to begin their lives, to expand their lives and to improve their lives.”

He then turned to Grimes’ supporters and said, “You can cheer for this too, it’s OK. You want a better life. We’re on the same team here, I’ll tell you that much. It’s easy to get up here and take cracks at Alison Lundergan Grimes and I’m not gonna do that, because she and I will have ample opportunity next year on this stage when this guy [McConnell] is gone, and do exactly that. And frankly, with the start of her campaign, I didn’t have anything left. The fact is, there will be time for that next year.”

As is clear from the fuller context, Bevin is not actually signaling an alliance with the Democrats, as the McConnell video would have you believe. In fact, Bevin took a subtle dig at Grimes’ campaign announcement (which the National Republican Senatorial Committee mocked as the “Worst Launch Ever”), and promised to spar in the future.

We can’t help but note a juicy bit of irony: Bevin himself was quoting McConnell out of context in the very speech that McConnell is now taking out of context.

If you recall from above, Bevin said McConnell “likes to brag about how Kentucky is a place where people come to end their lives.” Bevin was referring to a comment McConnell made at a Lincoln Day Dinner on April 26, and that’s not exactly what he said. What he said was, “It’s no accident that people who move here and work here choose to live here after they retire. How many people do we all know who come in here from one place or another, have fallen in love with the Bluegrass State and decided this is where they wanted to end their lives. That’s a tribute to all of you for the kind of state that we built and the kind of people who live here.” Muuuuch different. (h/t to Ryan Alessi from cn/2 for providing us the video).

Tea Party Member?

The McConnell Web video states that “Bevin told the conservative National Review: ‘I’ve never been a member of a tea party.’ ” That quote is attributed to Bevin in a July 29 story in the National Review, but in proper context, it can hardly be characterized as a denunciation of the tea party, as the McConnell video implies. Rather, it was a simple matter of fact. The headline of the story should be the first clue: “Kentucky’s Ted Cruz?” The article portrays Bevin as an anti-establishment Republican, and quotes Bevin saying, “Of 535 members of Congress, I would bet there are two dozen truly conservative people.” Bevin goes on to praise tea party darlings, Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz.

In speeches and ads, Bevin makes tea party-like appeals. His first ad, for example, criticized McConnell, saying he “has voted for higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and liberal judges.” Sarah Durand, former president of the Louisville Tea Party has signed on as Bevin’s communications director, and several conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, have indicated they are open to backing Bevin’s campaign.

‘Effectively’ Supported John Kerry?

The next piece of evidence cited in the video to make its case that Bevin is not a true conservative is the claim: “In 2004, Bevin Effectively Supported John Kerry for President.” The ad then states, “Bevin even brags about supporting a fringe candidate instead of George W. Bush.”

To be clear, despite the images of Kerry shown in the background of the video, Bevin did not support Kerry in the 2004 election. Rather, the ad states that Bevin “effectively” supported Kerry because he supported Constitution Party candidate Michael Peroutka, who ran for president with the socially conservative theme: “God-Family-Republic.” Peroutka got just 130,000 votes, less than Independent Ralph Nader and Libertarian Michael Badnarik, but more than the Green Party’s David Cobb.

Donated to Democrats

The video also states that “Bevin donated to Democrats.” It notes that he supported Democrats Greg Fischer and Wendy Caswell. That’s true on both counts: Kentucky election records show Bevin donated $500 to Fischer and $250 to Caswell in 2012. But there’s a little more to that story.

We’ll start with Caswell, who was running against long-serving Democratic state Rep. Reginald Meeks in a 2012 Democratic primary. Caswell was the founder, and is the current president, of the Louisville Tea Party. No Republican candidate ever entered the contest.

“She and I disagree on almost every social issue,” Bevin told the National Review. “But that’s okay, because where our nation is at a crossroads, and where I intend to execute this race, is on fiscal issues.”

Bevin’s campaign acknowledged that in a Louisville mayoral race, he donated to Democrat Greg Fischer’s primary campaign. But Bevin also donated $500 to Republican Hal Heiner’s primary mayoral campaign. Bevin’s campaign says he wanted to make sure the best qualified candidates from each party would run in the general election. In the general election, they note, Bevin donated another $1,500 to — and supported — Heiner, the Republican.

In all, Kentucky records show Bevin has donated $6,600 to Kentucky candidates, with $5,850 of it going to Republican candidates or the House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee. At the federal level, Bevin has given at least $18,550 in donations – all to Republicans, including to Kentucky’s other U.S. senator, Rand Paul, as well as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and the state Republican Party.

Democrats for Bevin

The video states, “Then, Democrats Supported Bevin.” The ad scans the top of a news story from the Washington Free Beacon with the headline, “Democrats Push Tea Party Primary Challenger to Mitch McConnell: DSCC officials pushing Tea Party candidate, trying to make trouble for minority leader.” Not shown in the ad is the second sentence of the story that states:

Free Beacon, Aug. 5: Since conservative Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin announced he would challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in the Kentucky GOP primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Senate Democratic leadership have been wryly boosting Bevin on Twitter and promoting conservative criticism of McConnell.

The key word in that sentence is “wryly.” (Websters: “cleverly and often ironically or grimly humorous.”) In other words, the DSCC doesn’t actually support Bevin. It supports Bevin taking shots at McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, who is seen as bigger political quarry.

Allied with ‘Most Liberal Senator’?

Lastly, the McConnell campaign Web video states, “When Bevin’s Connecticut company needed help, he turned to Washington’s most liberal senator. And then, Bevin’s companies got $200,000 in taxpayer bailouts.”

The “most liberal senator” in question is Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal (as rated by the National Journal). Blumenthal did step forward to help Bevin’s company after the fire. Bevin’s campaign noted that Connecticut just happens to have Democratic senators. (In addition to Blumenthal, Connecticut was represented in the Senate at that time by Joe Lieberman, who was officially listed as an Independent Democrat and sat as part of the Senate Democratic Caucus.) The state’s congressional delegation was entirely Democratic as well. So one would expect Bevin’s Connecticut company would have dealt with a Democrat.

As for the $200,000 in taxpayer bailouts, see above.

— Robert Farley