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Goss Adds Virginia GOP Lawyer to Trail of Telemarketing Campaign for Ravnsborg’s Impeachment

Austin Goss reports that a shadowy Virginia corporation helped fund and run the telemarketing campaign from an Ohio call mill last January that pushed for the impeachment of killer Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg:

That is according to multiple sources familiar with the situation, who say that constituents in the districts of certain state lawmakers targeted by the telemarketing campaign were supposed to hear the disclaimer “paid for by the Government Integrity Initiative (GII).” More than 50 people who received the phone calls say that the disclosure, required by federal law, was not heard at the end of the call.

According to a filing with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, GII was incorporated in April 2021 by Christopher Marston of Arlington, Virginia. As of April 30th, the company’s annual report is past due. As a result, their entity status with the Corporation Commission is listed as “pending inactive.”

According to his LinkedIn, Marston serves as the head of “Election CFO,” a political consulting company also based out of Arlington. Additionally, Marston serves as a part-time partner at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig, an area law firm. Marston is also active in the Virginia Republican Party, having served as chair of the Arlington GOP chapter recently.

Marston attended the state GOP convention earlier this month, where Governor Kristi Noem was a keynote speaker.

Marston did not respond to several requests for comments on this story [Austin Goss, “Virginia-Based Corporation Behind Ravnsborg Impeachment Calls,” KOTA-TV, 2022.05.23].

Speaker Spencer Gosch (R-23/Glenham) tells Goss he is confident that the Attorney General’s office “will investigate further” the “attempts to use dark money to influence the official work of the legislature,” but I’m still not seeing a clear path toward prosecuting anybody for calling South Dakotans and encouraging them to call their legislators and encourage them to impeach the Attorney General. Neither the Ohio telemarketers Grand Solutions Inc. who made the calls or the Virginia company Goss says organized and paid for them engaged in lobbying that would require them to register with the Secretary of State. We still don’t have receipts connecting either the Ohio firm or the Virginia firm to any South Dakota campaign fund whose expenditures on this First Amendment activity would run afoul of any South Dakota campaign finance disclosure law. And no South Dakota law compels the production of those receipts: South Dakota campaign finance law only requires that candidates and political committees report total spending in general categories, not itemize every expenditure to every vendor. The few-thousand dollars Kristi Noem might have spent on these impeach-Ravnsborg calls could be buried in the $154K she reports this spring for “Advertising” or the $184K she reports for “Consulting”, and we’d never know.

As for the players, the only intersection between the Ohio telemarketer’s spokesman Jonathan Petrea and the Virginia firm’s organizer Christopher Marston is a curious federal case from Ohio, Trakas v. Conservative Alliance PAC, in which candidate Trakas cried defamation and sued CAPAC for sending out $745,000 worth of ads calling Trakas a lying tax-hiker in the spring 2018 primary against his bid for reëlection to the Ohio State House. Marston was treasurer for the Conservative Alliance PAC and filed an affidavit saying that he had no reason to believe CAPAC’s ads were untrue and, since Trakas had won the primary, CAPAC would not send out any more ads against him in 2018. Petrea offered “expert” testimony in the form of a 16-page memo arguing that CAPAC’s ads weren’t good enough to cause Trakas to lose the May primary but somehow managed to cause him to lose the general six months after the ads circulated; CAPAC moved to exclude Petrea’s testimony because, basically, Petrea is full of crap:

To be sure, Petrea declares in the first sentence of his report that “I am an expert.” But, he is not an expert “simply because he claims to be.”… Indeed, Petrea states only that he operates a political consulting company, has knowledge of Ohio politics and the 6th Ohio House District in particular, and has a bachelor’s degree in political science. Otherwise, he identifies no qualifications typical of an expert in political science – he cites no publications, academic or otherwise, and he identifies no methodology that he used which is of a type accepted by experts in the field. As noted above, the Court must examine “not the qualifications of a witness in the abstract, but whether those qualifications provide a foundation for a witness to answer a specific question.”… Petrea clearly lacks the qualifications to opine as to why Trakas lost the November 2018 general election.

…Petrea’s report is replete with many of the red flags identified by the Sixth Circuit as indicia of unreliability. For example:

Improper extrapolation. At pages 2-3 of his report, Petrea piles inference upon inference to try to suggest that Trakas’ defeat in 2018 was caused by the CAPAC ads and had nothing to do with the fact that, as he acknowledges, the 6th District has been trending Democratic. Among the indications of that trend are that that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 2 percentage points in the district [see OMA Election Guide, at 87] while Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016. Petrea even acknowledges that in 2018, Republicans “had a disadvantage in districts, like District 6, where voters did not agree with the President.” But, then he opines that this “disadvantage” could not have affected the vote for Trakas because “public opinion polling shows rather convincingly that voters do not hold Trump out to be a creature of the Republican Party, but rather an elected official of his own making.” [Report at 3.] Petrea cites no polling data to support a contention that “voters” do not associate Trump with the Republican Party. In any event, his attempt to disclaim the trend toward Democratic party preference as having any effect on the District 6 House race renders his opinion speculative, at best.

Reliance on anecdotal evidence and failure to consider other possible causes. Petrea claims that “Trakas struggled to raise funds for his race after the primary and struggled to attract campaign volunteers. These were all results of defamatory messaging that impugned his character … .” [Report at 2.] Petrea offers merely anecdotal information, with no hard facts, about a dropoff in the number of yard signs and donors not returning phone calls. But he offers nothing to connect any purported data concerning the candidate’s general-election performance to the CAPAC advertisements, other than his own ipse dixit, which is inadmissible.…

Lack of testing. Petrea claims that the CAPAC advertisements “helped to suppress the Republican vote for Trakas.” He also claims that the ads “enflamed [sic] and helped to turn out Democratic voters who based on” information in the challenged ads, “went to the polls to vote against Trakas.” [Report at 1-2.] But he offers no polling data. He makes no mention of any voter survey or interviews. Indeed, Petrea apparently did not talk to a single Republican to find out if there was anyone who voted for Trakas in the primary, or was leaning toward him, but decided because of the CAPAC advertisements to vote for the Democrat in the general election. Petrea also apparently did not talk to a single Democratic voter who was planning to sit out the election but was “enflamed” by seeing an advertisement and went out to vote for the Democrat.

Opinions not supported by the evidence. At pages 4-5, Petrea references the battle between Reps. Ryan Smith and Larry Householder to win the House speakership after the resignation of Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, in which Rosenberger supported Smith, and in which Trakas, among other candidates and sitting House members, supported Householder. Petrea purports to read Rosenberger’s mind: “Rosenberger surmised that Trakas , who had not always enjoyed a positive relationship with Householder … had been recruited by Householder in an attempt to support Householder’s bid for House Speaker.” Petrea’s thoughts about what former Speaker Rosenberger supposedly thought, of course, are not evidence on which an expert opinion can be based.

Subjectivity.In addition to examples listed above, at pages 7-9, Petrea offers a series of subjective and unsupported assertions in an attempt to explain how Trakas could have won the Republican primary over Michael Canty, his opponent, despite the CAPAC advertisements that ran in the primary, and yet then because of the CAPAC ads, lose the general election. Petrea points to Trakas having an “engaging personality” and being an “aggressive campaigner” who “spoke to issues that mattered more to Republican primary voters than Canty[ ] did.” Petrea also offers that “GOP stalwarts” “felt sympathy” for Trakas because of the CAPAC ads and rallied to him during the primary. Petrea does not explain whether the “GOP stalwarts” lost interest in November, or provide any data to support any type a single one of these assertions.

At bottom, Petra’s subjective views on myriad factors that might have caused Trakas to lose the general selection are not admissible. No methodology is used and no actual data is provided. Instead, Petrea offers mere conjecture, speculation, and conclusory opinions. The Court should conclude “that there is simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered” [Jim Trakas v. Conservative Alliance Political Action Committee, et al., Defendant’s Motion to Exclude Opinion Testimony of Jonathan Petrea, United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, filed 2019.09.03, pp. 10–14].

A final ruling on Petrea’s expertise was mooted when, after a year and a half of covid and other delays, prior to jury trial, the parties filed a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice on July 19, 2021, and the judge said good riddance. Petrea and Marston do not appear to have interacted directly or even sat together in any courtroom or videoconference. And calling a consultant a knucklehead non-expert in court may not pave the way for a fruitful business relationship later, although a nice fat contract from Kristi Noem for easy work could induce many political operatives to bygone their bygones.

But that’s all speculation, and I doubt the current Attorney General’s ability to come up with anything more reliable on the calls that a smarter lawyer in Virginia hired call-center drones in Ohio to make to advocate the current Attorney General’s impeachment, and certainly not before the Senate convenes to try the Attorney General and perhaps remove him from office on June 21.

6 Comments

  1. Arlo Blundt 2022-05-25

    It is a tangled web, Mrs. Noem weaves.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-05-25

    Alas, Arlo, we have no evidence suggesting Noem’s involvement beyond the vague comment overheard in the background of the original recorded robocall that a governor was involved.

    And her alleged involvement won’t matter much if Ravnsborg and Gosch and half the troublemakers in the House GOP caucus are booted from Pierre next month.

  3. Mark Anderson 2022-05-25

    Oh Cory, her favorite song is The Dark Side of the Street. It’s the greatest cheating song of all time. It’s fits so well too.

  4. DaveFN 2022-05-25

    “And no South Dakota law compels the production of those receipts: South Dakota campaign finance law only requires that candidates and political committees report total spending in general categories, not itemize every expenditure to every vendor. The few-thousand dollars Kristi Noem might have spent on these impeach-Ravnsborg calls could be buried in the $154K she reports this spring for “Advertising” or the $184K she reports for “Consulting”, and we’d never know.”

    Subpoena the receipts. Whether or not they exist is irrelevant.

  5. leslie 2022-05-26

    Bengs and Smith: as candidates for Senator and Governor, appeal to the Veterans, the Independents, and the Indians, regardless of the dark money Republican campaigns are funded with!

    The dirt of Noem’s admin cloaked in secret trust money laundering; sheriffs’ suit to stop pot legalization; LRC/AG deviousness; the governor’s jet setting fund raising’s vague accounting.

    Appearance of impropriety! Fire for the smoke! Voters have to stop her and the SD GOP.

    Dem candidates must raise the alarms. Independents and Democratic voters can unseat these wing nut, 2nd amendment crazed, Republican zealots! Fireworks and Trump are all she’s got! Climate and economic inequality, and Mitch McConnell’s Republican chaos will take us all down if we are not united! Mitch and John have no leadership capability in the stark face of Uvalde, Texas’s horror show.

    And we almost beat the governor the last time. They are ASKING us to remove them from office.

  6. Dana P 2022-05-26

    That these legislators are more mad about possible outside influence into the process, rather than being angry as hell that the top cop in the state ran over and killed a man and lied about it? And then won’t hold him accountable?

    Whew boy. That sure says alot about where we are here.

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