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UPDATED: Lynda Bennett campaign under fire for sham endorsement

A pair of "official conservative ballots" sit on a table at the Haywood County Republican Party Headquarters in Waynesville on Feb. 14. A pair of "official conservative ballots" sit on a table at the Haywood County Republican Party Headquarters in Waynesville on Feb. 14. Cory Vaillancourt photo

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 22, but has been updated with new information as of Feb. 25.)   

A Smoky Mountain News investigation into a mysterious handout distributed at polling places during early voting casts serious aspersions on the legitimacy of an endorsement of congressional candidate Lynda Bennett by a previously unknown, hastily formed political action committee with ties to one of her campaign consultants.

When early voting began on Thursday, Feb. 13, many Republican congressional candidates were astonished to see volunteers handing out sample ballots at the polls that listed Bennett as the one and only conservative choice in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District Primary Election.

The required “paid for by” notice at the bottom of the handout lists “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” as the party responsible for printing them, but through the first eight days of the early voting period no such committee had filed organizational paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission, so no one really knew who was behind the ballots.

“Nobody had even heard of this group until seeing those ballots on the first day of early voting,” said Rod Edwards, campaign manager for 11th District Republican candidate Joey Osborne.

Once that paperwork was finally posted online by the North Carolina State Board of Elections around Feb. 20, it was revealed that “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” was created on Feb. 11 by Morganton resident Isaiah Mark Gordon, who didn’t file the committee’s organizational statement until Feb. 18.

Although the committee lists a business address on Sol Mull Street in Morganton, the return address on the envelope used to mail the paperwork doesn’t list Gordon or the Sol Mull Street address. Instead, it lists Jordan Bowman of 8842 Shepherd Court, in Connelly Springs, as the return address.

According to N.C. Secretary of State business filings, Bowman formed a company on Dec. 30, 2019, called Red Action Strategies. The business address listed with the Secretary of State is 8842 Shepherd Court, in Connelly Springs – the same address on the return label of “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC.”

Financial disclosures made by Lynda Bennett’s campaign show five separate payments to Red Action Strategies in amounts ranging from $1,595 to $11,951 between Jan. 10 and Feb. 3. The purpose of the payments – totaling $35,470 – is listed as online/social media services, and a separate payment in the amount of $5,000 was made to Bowman personally on Jan. 10, for videography.

The amount paid by the Bennett campaign to Bowman and his company totals $40,470, which is more than 75 percent of the $53,201 Bennett’s campaign has spent in the current election cycle.

“The way they set this committee up and her financial ties to the organization that set it up could be troubling if she’s the Republican nominee for Congress,” said Edwards. “She could end up facing FEC violations and Democrats would seize upon that in the General Election.”

If an endorsement made by a two-day-old “conservative ballot committee” of a candidate that had paid more than $40,000 to a consultant linked to the committee doesn’t sound fishy enough, a member of Bennett’s campaign also admitted involvement in distributing the handouts.

“I have lots of them,” said Jane Bilello when reached by phone on Feb. 14.

Bilello’s LinkedIn profile says that since 2009 she’s been the chair of the Asheville Tea PAC – the same organization that endorsed Bennett on Dec. 19, in an early morning phone conference that took place one hour after Rep. Mark Meadows told Politico he wouldn’t seek reelection and two hours before Bennett issued a press release announcing her candidacy. No other candidates had yet announced as of that time.

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Bennett’s financial disclosures show Bilello’s been paid $3,200 by the Bennett campaign for her work as a “field representative.” She insisted “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” was legitimate.

“They have thoroughly vetted these candidates,” Bilello said. “The candidates have been questioned, they have been interviewed and they have passed the smell test.”

When asked if his candidate, Osborne, had the chance to interview for the endorsement by “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” Edwards said, “Absolutely not.”

Another candidate, Madison Cawthorn, said he hadn’t been given the opportunity to be interviewed by “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” for the endorsement, and a representative from the Jim Davis campaign likewise said Davis hadn’t been interviewed for the endorsement either.

A packet of instructions distributed to poll workers by Bilello on behalf of Bennett seems to anticipate questions about “The Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” and blames “the govt” for not posting the conservative ballot committee’s information quick enough, however, the date on the organizational documents filed by Gordon indicate that Bilello’s excuse was likely a sham, too.

Interestingly, the ballot does not list a “conservative” choice in the primary race for Sen. Thom Tillis, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump this past June; Bilello’s comment in the instructions says to tell voters, “Anybody but Tillis!”

Aubrey Woodard, chair of the NCGOP’s 11th Congressional District, expressed “deep concern” with the situation.

“These are transgressions of the rules we should all be following,” said Woodard. “There was no reason for this, and there’s no reason for it to continue.”

Bilello chalks it all up to sour grapes.

“I don’t know what the big brew-ha-ha is,” she said. “Other than the fact that some of these candidates are annoyed because their guy is not on the ticket, not on the list.”

Reactions

This story was originally published online on Feb. 22, and in the days that followed, Republican county parties and candidates chimed in on social media and via press release, with one even calling for Bennett to drop out of the race.

In three separate Facebook posts, the Macon County Republican Party said that the story substantiated what they’d suspected about Bennett’s “rookie campaign,” that their own early voters had been “duped” and that Rep. Mark Meadows should be ashamed of associating with “this type of sleazy shenanigans.”

The Cherokee County Republican Party also posted about the situation so that its voters would know that not all the candidates had the opportunity to be interviewed for the endorsement on what it called “these fake conservative ballots.”

Candidate Joey Osborne said on Facebook Feb. 24 that his campaign office had been “inundated” with calls by voters who felt cheated by what he called “dirty and illegal tactics.”

On Feb. 25, a press release issued by the Osborne campaign called upon Bennett to drop out of the race.

“I believe that there is little doubt the promotion and distribution of the conservative ballot by the Bennett campaign is a substantial violation of Federal Election Commission law. It is both unethical and illegal,” Osborne said in the release. “Should she be elected, she would likely face a House ethics investigation and possible sanctions.”

Renee Elmers, a Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, issued a press release also on Feb. 24 disavowing the “sham endorsement ballot distributed by fake conservative group.” Elmers wasn’t the endorsed candidate for that race, and said in the release she hadn’t been interviewed, either.

“Candidates work hard for a year, travelling the state, meeting voters and trying to get out their message,” she said in the release. “Groups like this, that claim they’ve vetted candidates on conservative positions when in fact they had not and never intended to do so, need to stop.”

An email sent to Gordon went unanswered, as did emails to everyone on Bennett’s endorsement page, including Rep. Meadows, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the House Freedom Fund, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the RightWomen Political Action Committee.

When reached by email, Bennett refused to answer any questions about the situation and called the allegations “baseless,” but that might not actually be the case.

“Certainly at a minimum this return address being associated with a campaign vendor might suggest there is some connection to the campaign that it was supporting,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney who serves as the director of the Federal Reform Program at Washington, D.C. based Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit non-partisan watchdog group that works to strengthen the laws that protect democracy, primarily in redistricting, ethics and campaign finance.

“Anybody with information providing reason to believe the law has been violated can file a complaint with the FEC for formal investigation,” Fischer said. “We file those types of cases, and I think there appear to be some close connections, but we’d want more information before doing anything.”

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