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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Misleading Ads from Leading GOP PAC

Congressional Leadership Fund, the highest-spending super PAC seeking to sway House races in the upcoming midterms, has been flooding TV airwaves around the country with ads attacking Democrats running in close races. But we found that some of those ads are misleading.

  • In Ohio, a CLF ad misleadingly suggests that Democratic candidate Aftab Pureval was “selling out Americans” because he worked “at a D.C. lobbying firm” that “made millions helping Libya reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism.” Pureval never did any lobbying, and the Libyan settlement was signed before he joined the firm.
  • In Virginia, an ad attacking Abigail Spanberger claims she would vote for a Medicare for All bill — but Spanberger has said she does not support the bill.
  • Another ad attacking Spanberger calls her “a risk we can’t afford” because “Spanberger taught at an Islamic school called Terror High, a school so radical one graduate tried to kill President Bush.” Before joining the CIA, Spanberger was a long-term substitute AP English teacher at the Virginia school for a year, several years after the man graduated.
  • An ad in Washington’s 8th District misleading claims Kim Schrier’s support for a state income and carbon tax would make taxes overall “much worse.” Schrier said the state, which relies on high sales taxes, should “move toward a progressive income tax.” But there’s no detailed plan to assess whether it would result in a net tax increase.
  • In Illinois, an ad attacking Brendan Kelly claims he “pled out” 50 percent of crimes as state’s attorney for St. Clair County. But that figure is both inaccurate and unremarkable. St. Clair’s actual rate is comparable to the state’s and those of its five surrounding counties.

Congressional Leadership Fund, which bills itself as “the super PAC endorsed by House Republican leadership,” is by far the biggest-spending super PAC attempting to influence races in the upcoming November elections. It announced in early October that it had surpassed its $100 million fundraising goal to help elect Republicans to the House in the midterm elections. To date, the group says it has amassed a war chest of $132 million.

All four of the House races we write about here are rated as “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report.

In Ohio, Twisting Work at Law Firm

An ad CLF is running in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District misleadingly suggests that Democratic candidate Aftab Pureval, in his work “at a D.C. lobbying firm,” was “selling out Americans” because the firm “made millions helping Libya reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism.”

Pureval worked at a large law firm that does a bit of lobbying work. But he never did any lobbying work for the firm. Nor was he involved with a settlement the firm helped to negotiate on behalf of the Libyan government to compensate victims of terrorism. Furthermore, Pureval’s opponent, as a member of the House, signed off on the deal.

The narrator of the ad begins by saying, “Politician Aftab Pureval will say anything to get elected.” The ad then cuts to a clip of Pureval in an ad saying, “The special interests and lobbyists rig the game to benefit themselves.”

“Pureval should know,” the narrator continues. “He worked at a D.C. lobbying firm. But worse than Pureval’s lies is his hypocrisy. Pureval’s lobbying firm made millions helping Libya reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism. Selling out Americans? Aftab Pureval can’t be trusted.”

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati Law School in 2008, Pureval was hired that September by White & Case, a large global law firm that, like many large law firms, also does some lobbying work. Pureval, however, was never a lobbyist, and he did no lobbying for the firm. Rather, he acted as an antitrust associate, his campaign said. The Lobbying Disclosure Act database shows no record that Pureval has ever been a registered lobbyist.

Prior to Pureval joining White & Case, the New York-based law firm was hired by the Libyan government under the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi to help reach a settlement to compensate victims of several terrorist attacks, including the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. A settlement that would pay those victims $1.5 billion was approved by then-President George W. Bush a month before Pureval joined White & Case.

The settlement agreement was approved in the House by consent without objection. Among those who did not object was Rep. Steve Chabot, Pureval’s opponent in the House race. The Libyan Claims Resolution Act also passed the Senate by unanimous consent and was signed by President Bush on Aug. 4, 2008 (a month before Pureval joined White & Case).

Pureval’s campaign said Pureval never worked on the settlement. In fact, Pureval never worked on any matter having to do with Libya, his campaign said. And as the Cincinnati Enquirer noted, Pureval was not one of the three White & Case attorneys who registered as foreign agents and submitted expenses related to representing Libya in 2008, according to Justice Department records. Pureval is not listed as a foreign agent for any country in the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act database.

Misguided Attacks in Virginia

CLF unleashed two misleading attack ads against Democrat Abigail Spanberger, who is facing incumbent Republican Rep. Dave Brat for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District seat.

The first ad portrays Spanberger as being in lockstep with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — whom Spanberger says she would not support to be speaker of the House if Democrats regained control of the House — and claims she would vote for a Medicare for All bill that Spanberger has said she does not support.

“As a mom of two, I’m in charge of balancing my family’s budget,” Susan Beals of Midloathian, Virginia, says in the ad. “That’s why I can’t support Abigail Spanberger. Spanberger joined Nancy Pelosi to oppose the $2,000 middle class tax cut. And Spanberger would vote with Pelosi for a $32 trillion government takeover of health care, nearly doubling the debt. Spanberger and Pelosi would raise our taxes and put America deeper in debt.”

The “$2,000 middle class tax cut” refers to Spanberger’s opposition to the 2017 Republican tax law. Though that shorthand to describe the tax plan is a regular Republican talking point, a Tax Policy Center analysis of the plan found that the average tax cut would amount to $380 a year for those in the second income quintile, $930 for those in the middle quintile, and $1,810 for those in the fourth quintile. As for the effect for a typical middle-income family, as we wrote in March, the Tax Policy Center calculated that a family of four with two young children and an adjusted gross income of $75,000 would see a tax savings of $2,119 in 2018. But the savings would be nearly half that ($1,119) for a couple earning the same amount but with two older children, 17 and 18 years old. And by 2027, both of the couples would be paying $150 more in taxes, the Tax Policy Center said, because most of the personal income tax cuts are set to expire that year.

As for the ad’s suggestion that Spanberger would be in lockstep with Pelosi, Real Clear Politics noted that in an April interview, Spanberger praised Pelosi but said she would “very much like to vote for someone else” to lead the Democrats in the House. It’s true that the House Majority PAC — a PAC with ties to Pelosi — is running ads in support of Spanberger, but she told NBC News in August, “Under no circumstances, would I vote for Nancy Pelosi to again be speaker of the House.”

The ad’s claim that Spanberger would “vote with Pelosi for a $32 trillion government takeover of health care, nearly doubling the debt,” is a reference to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act, which would expand Medicare into a universal health insurance program.

An Urban Institute analysis of an earlier version of Sanders’ plan — which is cited in the ad — concluded it would increase federal expenditures by about $32 trillion over 10 years (though it concluded overall national health expenditures would increase by $6.6 trillion over that period). Whether the federal debt would double depends on how the plan is offset by increased taxes, though the Urban Institute says the tax revenues suggested by Sanders so far are “much too low to fully finance the plan.”

But Spanberger doesn’t support that plan. She told USA Today in August she opposed “a government-run single-payer health care system,” and she told Richmond2Day in August: “The single-payer bill that is currently before Congress is not one that I currently support.”

Rather, as she has stated repeatedly throughout her campaign, she supports the Medicare-X Choice Act, which would offer a public plan option based on Medicare to those under age 65 who buy coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces.

CLF points to an interview in January in which Spanberger said, “I think that single-payer is a really great direction to go towards.” But her fuller answer (starting at the 24-minute mark) was that: “Whether or not we are ready if the Democrats take Congress in 2018 to fully move towards a single-payer system, that I’m not sure about.”

Spanberger said her “goal is to ensure that as many people as possible – that everyone – has access to affordable, quality health care. And that’s full stop, my goal.” She added that in order to provide stability to the health care system, she wants to “make sure that any legislation we can reach really does have a significant amount of bipartisan support.”

Misleading ‘Terror High’ Claim

Another CLF ad targeting Spanberger attempts to tie her to an Islamic school in suburban Washington, D.C., once dubbed “Terror High” because one of its students aligned with al Qaeda years after graduating. 

“As a mom, nothing’s more important than my family’s safety,” Lane Carr, of Henrico, Virginia, says in the ad. “Abigail Spanberger is a risk we can’t afford. Spanberger taught at an Islamic school called Terror High, a school so radical one graduate tried to kill President Bush.”

It’s true that Spanberger spent a year as a long-term substitute teacher of AP English at ISA, an Islamic School funded by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. And it’s also true that a one-time valedictorian of the school, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was later convicted of joining al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate then-President George W. Bush.

But it’s beyond a stretch to call Spanberger a “risk,” as the ad does, because of her brief employment as a substitute teacher at the school. In 2002, after graduating from business school, Spanberger applied for employment with the CIA and received a conditional offer to serve in the National Clandestine Service, her campaign said. As she awaited background clearance, which can sometimes take years, Spanberger discussed a substitute teaching position at the school with CIA recruiters, and the CIA was fully aware of her employment. After teaching at the school from December 2002 to December 2003, Spanberger took a job as a federal law enforcement officer at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and then in 2006 began working for the CIA on counterterrorism and nuclear-related issues.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who is serving a life sentence, graduated from the school several years before Spanberger was a teacher there. And his arrest came after she had left the school.

“For a Republican Super PAC to question my national security credentials and integrity based on the time I spent as a long-term substitute, teaching English to children at an embassy school in Northern Virginia, is desperate and weak,” Spanberger said in a statement provided to FactCheck.org. “The CIA hired me, gave me a Top Secret//SCI security clearance, and trusted me with some of our nation’s greatest secrets in part because of my engagement with and knowledge of other languages, perspectives, and cultures. I drew on this knowledge every day at CIA — doing so made me a strong operations officer.”

The ad also says Spanberger “supported the Iranian deal, giving billions to the leading sponsor of terrorism.” That’s based on a tweet from Spanberger on May 8 in which she stated, “The decision to abandon #IranianNuclearDeal without cause hurts US credibility across the world & erodes the trust necessary to maintain the diplomatic & intelligence efforts that keep our country safe.”

But opposing the abandonment of the deal, which unfroze billions in Iranian assets, is different from supporting the deal at the time. Indeed several congressional leaders, Republicans and Democrats, opposed the Iran deal struck by President Barack Obama, but later opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the deal because they worried about the perception that the U.S. reneges on settled negotiations.

CLF notes that her comments in a Facebook post explaining her opposition to Trump’s decision to end the deal sounded supportive of it.

Spanberger, May 8: The Iranian nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, took 20 months for diplomats from the P5+1 countries to negotiate. The purpose of this agreement was to make the world safer by bringing countries together to address the threat of a nuclear Iran and compel Iran to accept restrictions on its nuclear program. According to ALL accounts, the agreement was working.

Spanberger’s campaign says she was collecting intelligence for military advisers when the deal was negotiated, and took no position on it at that time.

State Income Tax Spin

In Washington’s 8th District, CLF is running a misleading ad against Democrat Kim Schrier on taxes.

It says, “We’ve already got the fourth highest sales tax rate in the nation. And Kim Schrier, she’d make it much worse. Schrier supports a state income tax.” It goes on to say that Schrier supports “an energy tax, raising our electric bills and gas prices.”

In making its claim that Schrier supports a state income tax, the ad cites one line she wrote in a candidate questionnaire, in which she said: “Here in Washington state, we need to address our regressive tax system and move toward a progressive income tax.”

Washington has no income tax and instead relies on a high sales tax, which is considered a regressive tax because it takes a larger percentage of income from low-income groups than from high-income groups. Income taxes, on the other hand, typically impose higher tax rates on higher-income people.

There’s no actual state tax plan from Schrier to evaluate, so we cannot determine whether a new tax system would make Washington’s taxes “much worse,” even when coupled with an “energy tax.” The ad simply assumes that.

Schrier didn’t say she supported an income tax on top of the state’s sales taxes, as the ad suggests. An overhaul of the state’s sales-tax-based system might make taxes “worse” for some but not for others. Typically, changing tax types or rates would lead to lower taxes for some individuals and higher taxes for others.

It’s also worth noting that Schrier is running for the U.S. Congress, where she would have no authority over state tax decisions. Schrier is running against Republican Dino Rossi for the open House seat.

In her candidate questionnaire, Schrier addressed federal taxes, where she would have some control if elected.

“From the federal level, we need to make sure everyone pays their fair share, including making sure that any tax cuts go to the middle class and that we remove the loopholes that benefit high-earners,” she wrote.

The ad then says that Schrier supports “an energy tax, raising our electric bills and gas prices.” That claim is based on a candidate forum in March in which she raised a green “yes” card when the host of the forum said: “I support the carbon tax recently voted down in the Washington legislature.” (See the 53-minute mark of the video.)

The state proposal, which didn’t succeed this year, called for a tax of $12 per metric ton of carbon emissions on fossil fuels, an amount that would increase until it hit $30 in 2030. The Washington Policy Center, an independent think tank that promotes “public policy based on free-market solutions” and opposed the legislation, said that for households that drive about 25,674 miles a year, that would amount to $150 in 2019 in higher gas prices (and $376 in 2029) and that the average family would pay $12 more in 2019 for electricity. The bill called for financial assistance to mitigate the impact on low-income households.

Again, it’s not possible to evaluate whether a carbon tax coupled with a new, but undefined, progressive income tax would make taxes “much worse” for residents of Washington and, if so, for whom.

Voters will consider a state ballot initiative in November to enact a carbon fee.

Misleading Attacks in Illinois

In an ad attacking Brendan Kelly, who is challenging Republican incumbent Mike Bost in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District, the Congressional Leadership Fund claims that Kelly — the St. Clair County state’s attorney — “cut plea deals that put violent criminals into our neighborhoods.” On-screen text says: “50% of crimes pled out.”

But that message lacks both accuracy and critical context about the use of plea deals.

Actually, 64 percent of the felony cases in St. Clair County under Kelly resulted in guilty pleas, according to our review of the Illinois annual court reports between 2011 and 2016. (Kelly assumed the position at the end of 2010.) That figure isn’t much higher than the 61 percent plea-deal rate we found for felony cases statewide in Illinois during the same period. St. Clair’s rate also is roughly in line with the rates seen in 2016 for five surrounding counties.

Either way, the use of plea bargaining to dispose of cases is to be expected, said Theodore Wilson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Albany. Wilson told us that there are two primary avenues used to resolve cases: “Guilty pleas and then case dismissals.”

The vast majority of the felony cases that ended in convictions between 2011 and 2016 in St. Clair County were secured by guilty pleas: 98 percent, according to the state’s annual court reports. Wilson said that isn’t far from the norm. He pointed to an estimate, cited by former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a 2012 decision, that “94 percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.”

“Prosecutors don’t know exactly what will happen if they take a case to trial,” Wilson said. He noted that a “plea deal often times involves punishment — where you’re going to be incarcerated or put on probation, at risk of incarceration.”

And Wilson cautioned that “a single number without context is misleading.” The rate of plea deals, he said, doesn’t offer insight into the severity of the sentences in each of the cases. 

The ad does accurately point to a case in which a man found guilty of sexually assaulting two teenage girls was sentenced to three-and-a-half years probation. The Belleville News-Democrat, which reported that the man was a “family member” of one of the minors “at the time of the conduct,” quoted Kelly as saying the terms of the sentence were what the victim preferred “under the circumstances.”

Another ad from CLF claims that “Kelly let rape cases go unpunished,” citing an investigation that the News-Democrat published in 2015. 

The newspaper’s investigation found that, between 2005 and 2013, “82 percent of the total rape reports made to police” in St. Clair County did not result in charges being filed. It should be noted, though, that Kelly took office at the end of 2010, and the newspaper found that the number of sex crime charges being filed in 2012 and 2013 had increased. Kelly also announced protocol changes in response to the newspaper’s revelations.

To support the assertion that Kelly “cut plea deals allowing violent criminals to walk free,” the ad cites a case in which a man convicted of killing his daughter’s mother had twice before been charged with battery against the victim, but received probation. After the slaying, Kelly told the Associated Press that the victim had lobbied for probation despite receiving earlier court protections from him. “I don’t know if it was because of the baby or what,” her mother, Cathy McGolson, said to the AP at the time. “Every time I asked her if something was wrong, she just told me everything was fine.”

Another case cited involved an HIV-positive teacher who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a student. The deal allowed for the dismissal of some charges, and the teacher was sentenced to 36 months of probation.

Kelly campaign manager Sam Barrett declined to comment on specific cases but pointed us to the candidate’s work leading an Illinois task force that eyed improvements to sexual assault prosecutions, and his support of a measure that ended the statutes of limitations for child sex crimes.

The same ad also tells viewers that “Kelly even said it wasn’t his job to win convictions.” That quote is taken out of context. In a video interview with the News-Democrat, Kelly said: “As prosecutors, our goal is not a conviction. Our goal is not to make an example necessarily out of anybody. Our goal first and foremost is justice.”

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"[Aftab] Pureval’s lobbying firm made millions helping Libya reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism. Selling out Americans? Aftab Pureval can’t be trusted."
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Wednesday, August 29, 2018
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“We’ve already got the fourth highest sales tax rate in the nation. And Kim Schrier, she’d make it much worse. Schrier supports a state income tax.”
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Friday, October 5, 2018
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"[Abigail] Spanberger would vote with Pelosi for a $32 trillion government takeover of health care, nearly doubling the debt."
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Thursday, September 27, 2018
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As state's attorney, Brendan Kelly had “50% of crimes pled out.”
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Wednesday, September 26, 2018