Ad claiming Kari Lake supported open borders ruled 'political'; disclosure of donors possible

This photo of an ad that said Kari Lake was soft on border issues was submitted in a complaint by an attorney with the Lake campaign to the Clean Elections Office in June.
Richard Ruelas
Arizona Republic

An ad that accused Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake of supporting open borders was political and subject to the state’s campaign finance laws, according to a preliminary ruling by the executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

The ruling issued Monday by Thomas Collins, the executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, dismissed arguments by Freedoms Future Fund — the non-profit that produced the ad — that it was educational, not political.

Freedoms Future Fund said in a letter to the Clean Elections Commission that it wanted to make viewers aware of Lake’s positions, not because she was a Republican candidate for governor, but because she was a former television anchor.

If the commission votes to adopt the recommendation of its executive director, Freedoms Future Fund must file campaign finance reports disclosing its donors. It would face civil penalties if it failed to do so. The commission could also authorize Collins, as executive director, to subpoena documents related to the funding for the ad.

Lake has made tough border policy a centerpiece of her campaign for governor. She has called for bombing tunnels used by smugglers, using computer-aided special effects to illustrate an imagined detonation in one of her campaign ads.

But the ad by Freedoms Future Fund argued she was soft on the border because she donated money to Democratic President Barack Obama and didn't do the same for Republican President Donald Trump

The ad in question aired multiple times across television stations in the Phoenix markets from February through June. It started airing in Tucson in May andJune. Invoices filed with the Federal Elections Commission show more than $500,000 was spent to air it.

In the ad, a narrator intoned that the “border is in crisis” and urged viewers to “Contact Lake. Tell her it’s time to secure our border.”

Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, holds a press conference at her campaign headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz. on Aug. 3, 2022.

The commercial mentioned that Lake had donated to Obama, but not Trump. “How can we trust Kari Lake when she supported open border politicians?” the ad’s narrator asked.

Records show the ad aired in February during NBC’s broadcast of the 2022 Olympics and the CBS coverage of the Phoenix Open golf tournament.

Lake, a former television news anchor at Fox 10, overcame any negative perception created by the ads. The first-time candidate secured the Republican Party nomination for governor in the August primary election.

Tim La Sota, an attorney for the Lake campaign who filed the complaint, did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.

Attorneys for Freedoms Future Fund did not return a request for comment on Monday. There was no response to an email sent to the organization.

Freedoms Future Fund seemed to acknowledge its ads were political in nature, as it listed them as such in forms filed requesting advertising time. One form, filed with Arizona's Family stations KTVK-TV and KPHO-TV, said the ad concerned Lake, who was seeking the office of Arizona governor.

That form listed the executives of Freedoms Future Fund as Chris Jankowski, Robert Jones and Jason Roe. People with those names have had involvement in Republican politics around the country in varying manners. The treasurer of the group was listed on the form as Charles Gannt from Bulldog Compliance, a division of the Republican strategy group, Red Curve Solutions.

Neither Gannt nor any of the executives could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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Dark money ads proliferate in Arizona

This is at least the third instance of political activity during the 2022 election cycle in Arizona financed by murky means.

A group called Put Arizona First paid more than $2 million to advocate for Lake’s campaign and against her chief rival in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Karrin Taylor Robson.

A filing with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office said the money came from a business, SPH Medical, that listed as its address a UPS Store in north Phoenix, the same UPS Store listed as the address for Put Arizona First. No such business exists in Arizona. The California owner of the only SPH Medical operating nationwide told The Arizona Republic he made no such donation.

Another group, Securing Arizona, reported receiving $227,000 from an estate auction business in California. But the owners of that business, Yellow Dog Sales, in Brea, California, reported making no such donations. The chair of Securing Arizona said it was a clerical error. An amended filing listed the business as located at a virtual business office in Nevada. That state’s records show no such business incorporated there.

La Sota filed a complaint against the ads produced by Freedoms Future Fund in February. He filed an additional complaint in June as the ads continued.

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Freedoms Future Fund said it did not need to file a campaign finance report with the secretary of state because it was a non-profit organization. Arizona law generally exempts such organizations from filing the disclosure forms required of groups seeking to influence elections.

But, the report from the Clean Elections Commission’s executive director noted that Freedoms Future Fund did not file the form with the Internal Revenue Service required under state law to grant it that exception.

Freedoms Future Fund said it filed a notice with the IRS that it intended to act like a non-profit that performed political advocacy, and that should suffice. Collins in his report said Arizona law specifies that an entity needs to file one of the exact forms required: Form 1023, Form 1024, or an equivalent successor.

Failing that, state law says an enforcement officer must presume an entity was formed with the aim of influencing elections, the report states. “Here, no evidence publicly available contradicts that there is at least reason to believe at this juncture that (Freedoms Future Fund’s) predominant purpose is purchasing these advertisements.”

Freedoms Future Fund was incorporated in Delaware in January. It hosts a one-page website that encourages residents of border states to contact their governors. It also hosts a website called KariLakeFacts.com that lists what it calls her “troubling history on the issues that matter to Arizona.”

Lake's former news anchor job cited

Two attorneys for Freedoms Future Fund, in a July letter to Collins, said that the organization’s ads were not targeting Lake as a candidate, but as television personality. Lake left the air in March 2021, but the attorneys argued she still had sway over viewers in that capacity.

Lake was “a prominent television news journalist who viewers trust to present nonbiased information regarding issues that affect their daily lives,” the attorneys wrote. “Public figures like Ms. Lake have the ability to influence policy outcomes by using their platforms to discuss policy issues.”

The letter did not detail exactly how, besides running for office, Lake was aiming to influence the public.

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The attorneys wrote that the ads “are best interpreted as encouraging viewers to contact a prominent news reporter and advocate for a more conservative view on border security and gun control.”

However, Collins concluded, after analyzing statutes and case law, that the ads could be defined as constituting “express advocacy,” the legal term that makes defines them as political ads and triggers the campaign finance laws.

“In context,” Collins wrote, “the advertisement has no other reasonable meaning other than to advocate for Lake’s defeat.”

The Citizens Clean Election Commission is a voter-created non-partisan board that funds campaigns, polices finance rules and conducts voter education. It is not clear when the five-member commission will discuss the issue. The next meeting of the commission has been scheduled for Aug. 25.

Reach Ruelas at 602-444-8473 or at richard.ruelas@arizonarepublic.com.