Campaign Notebook: Carney sends cease and desist letter over ad

DOVER — A political action committee that pledged to spend $1 million opposing Gov. John Carney’s reelection campaign continues to slam him, prompting a cease and desist letter from the governor over a “blatantly false and misleading” television advertisement.

The group, Citizens for Transparency & Inclusion, has run several TV ads blasting the governor and other state officials. Citizens for Transparency & Inclusion is an offshoot of Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware, an organization created after the Court of Chancery in 2015 ordered the constantly bickering owners of the translation services company TransPerfect to sell the business.

The court decision drew the ire of TransPerfect co-owner Phil Shawe, and in the years since, the well-funded Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware has annoyed many local politicians and attorneys with ads and news conferences bashing the state judiciary and other prominent decision-makers. Political observers consider it a nuisance organization with a vendetta, and the Delaware State Bar Association denounced the group last year.

Its arguments are tailored to drain support from the governor and the chancellor who ruled on TransPerfect, and, as such, the group has sensationalized claims and excluded context at times, painting Gov. Carney and other officials as racist and corrupt. Many of the PAC’s proposed reforms deal with the Court of Chancery, which is highly respected in the business and legal worlds but is in Mr. Shawe’s crosshairs.

TransPerfect-backed legislation that would have created a three-year waiting period before a court-imposed sale could take place went nowhere in 2017.

The most recent ad takes aim at the governor’s pardon of Barry Croft, a Bear resident charged earlier this month with plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Legal counsel for Gov. Carney issued a cease and desist order relating to the pardon ad Monday, citing “shoddy research and lack of care for truthfulness.”

The ad originally claimed state auditor Kathy McGuiness and state treasurer Colleen Davis were involved with the pardon, despite the fact they had not yet taken office at the time. That has been updated, but the ad still says Gov. Carney let Mr. Croft “go free,” even though he had not been in prison for at least 15 years, per the Associated Press.

After the arrest, Delaware officials noted Mr. Croft’s criminal offenses were more than two decades old and the five-member Board of Pardons recommended the governor approve his request for clemency with no opposition, according to the Associated Press.

“The ad has only one purpose: It is intended solely to embarrass the governor only days before the 2020 general election and not create a public dialogue about the incarceration of African-American prisoners,” reads the letter from attorney Neil Reiff sent to several TV stations. “Of course, the governor and his campaign welcomes an honest dialogue about such issues, but not through the use of false advertising.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Julianne Murray jumped on the letter, claiming the governor is trying “to trample basic freedom of speech rights.”

Another ad bashes Gov. Carney for a Department of Transportation land deal in the Frederica area, alleging it is evidence of corruption in the executive branch.

That ad was based off research by self-described “citizen watchdog” Sam Chick, a former GOP candidate for the Delaware House of Representatives. According to Mr. Chick, an attorney for the group reached out to him unprompted to discuss his research, which has been ongoing since last year, about a month ago.

Mr. Chick said he did not know how the lawyer found out about the situation and was unaware of who he represented until he saw the ad.

A spokeswoman for the PAC said it is not coordinating with any political candidates.

Contribution ruling

Delaware’s election commissioner has rejected a complaint filed by the Democratic Party over third-party advertising on behalf of three Republican state senators seeking reelection.

The party last week requested a ruling from the Department of Elections on contributions from businessman Chris Kenny, accusing him of illegally coordinating with three Republican state senators and “single-handedly trying to buy the Delaware State Senate” for the GOP. Financial records show since the start of 2019 Mr. Kenny, his ShopRite supermarket chain and a free-market advocacy group he founded have contributed at least $437,000 combined to Republican campaigns and independent committees aimed at boosting GOP candidates.

His political action committee, named A Better Delaware after the organization formed last year, gave nearly $192,000 to a similarly named entity that spent the same amount on independent expenditures from August to mid-October, records show.

State law defines independent expenditures as contributions “made by any individual or other person (other than a candidate committee or a political party) expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, which is made without cooperation or consultation with any candidate, or any committee or agent of such candidate, and which is not made in concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, any candidate or any committee or agent of such candidate.”

The funding all went to support the campaigns of Cathy Cloutier, Anthony Delcollo and Dave Lawson, the three GOP senators facing opponents Nov. 3. Democrats, who control the Senate, are hoping to unseat at least one of them, with district demographics making Sens. Cloutier and Delcollo more vulnerable.

Delaware Democratic Party Chairman Erik Raser-Schramm claimed the senators are “knowingly outsourcing their campaign communications,” because the money spent by A Better Delaware PAC on their behalf far exceeds their own fundraising.

In his ruling, Election Commissioner Anthony Albence noted A Better Delaware’s executive director provided an affidavit stating there was no coordination.

“You state that the three candidates are ‘beholden’ to the ABD PAC as evidenced by the amounts each has reported as advertising expenditures on their 30-day campaign finance report, and as also evidenced by the limited amount of advertising each has done as indicated on those reports,” Mr. Albence wrote.

“You suggest these facts require a determination that ABD PAC’s expenditures were not independent and were made through ‘arrangement, coordination, or direction’ with the candidates or the candidates’ agents. However, there is no evidence for me to conclude that the level of advertising expenditures by any of the candidates relative to the amounts each has raised is the result of any such ‘arrangement, coordination, or direction’ or otherwise contrary to law.”

Still, the Democratic Party’s executive director believes the independent expenditures used on the senators’ behalf should concern voters.

“It is largely unprecedented to see such central functions of campaigning handed over to a third party with very little activity from the candidates themselves,” Jesse Chadderdon said.

Ballot update

With the presidential election now less than two weeks away, ballots have been pouring into the state Department of Elections. As of Monday morning, the agency had received 92,915 absentee or vote-by-mail ballots.

Last month’s primary, the first in Delaware with true mail-in voting, saw about 178,000 votes, with approximately 76,000 submitted remotely. More Democrats voted by mail than in person, though the shares were close, while Republicans were several times more likely to vote at a polling place.

For comparison, there were about 362,000 participants, around 5% of whom voted absentee, in 2018’s general election.

There have been some anecdotal reports of people not receiving their ballots, but according to Mr. Albence, the Department of Elections is “not aware of any issues outside of some isolated instances — but nothing out of the ordinary given the very large volume of ballots being sent and returned.”

The agency works closely with the U.S. Postal Service, which Mr. Albence described as a “great partner,” to ensure the process runs smoothly.

And finally, the Associated Press recently noted 17 states specifically bar counting ballots cast by someone who then dies before the election, while 10 states allow it. Delaware, Mr. Albence said, voids ballots from individuals who die before their votes are processed.

Editor’s note: The Delaware State News ran ads from Citizens for Transparency & Inclusion regarding the pardon Sunday and Wednesday.