Following Political Ad Money in Miami

Since the Federal Communications Commission’s new online database of political ad data does not include information from Spanish-language stations, we at Free Press decided to take matters into our own hands. Free Press staff and volunteers visited Spanish-language stations in three battleground states — Colorado, Florida and New Mexico — to inspect the political files and post them online.

These files contain a wealth of information on ad spending not just for presidential races, but for local and state races and ballot initiatives. Many analysts, like former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter, believe the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will be felt most at the local and state level.

The Miami-Dade property appraiser’s race was over by the time we arrived in Florida, but the political files at one Spanish-language station helped us get beyond the headlines. The race pitted the incumbent Democrat Pedro J. Garcia against Republican state legislator Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who won the election on Aug. 15.

Corporate Cash and Influential Lobbyists

At the Miami Univision station WLTV, we found political ad files from Lopez-Cantera’s campaign and Citizens for Lower Property Taxes. This group supports a ballot measure, “Amendment 4,” which Tampa Bay Online says “would cut about $1.7 billion from local revenues statewide over the next four years” via property tax cuts.

In WLTV’s political files, Lopez-Cantera’s campaign and Citizens for Lower Property Taxes are referred to interchangeably. Documents for Citizens for Lower Property Taxes reveal that payment for the ads was on behalf of Carlos Lopez-Cantera, not the ballot initiative. The files also show that Citizens for Lower Property Taxes paid for the Lopez-Cantera campaign’s ad buy. The checks for both ad buys share the same postal address.

The Mandrake Media Group, headed up by Chris Moya, brokered both ad buys. Moya is also the CEO and a registered lobbyist for the Moya Group and counts Dosal Tobacco Corporation and the United States Sugar Corporation among his current and past clients. Contributor files reveal that both of these companies also donated to the Common Sense Leadership Committee, a fundraising committee affiliated with Lopez-Cantera.

As of Sept.18, these two companies had donated almost $8,000 to the Common Sense Leadership Committee, which turned around and gave $2,000 to Lopez-Cantera and $72,000 to Citizens for Lower Property Taxes. According to WLTV’s files, Citizens for Lower Property Taxes significantly outspent the Lopez-Cantera campaign. Lopez-Cantera’s August ad buy totaled $16,298.75 while Citizens for Lower Property Taxes spent $25,755 during the same time period.

So here we have a situation where a registered lobbyist is buying ad time for a political campaign and a ballot initiative campaign — both of which dealt with property issues. And a few of this lobbyist’s clients also contributed to both efforts.

Fact-Checking Misleading Ads

WLTV’s political files also document an ad buy from Accountability Watchdog, a group that is largely supported and staffed by the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association (PBA). Accountability Watchdog spent $26,945 to run ads opposing Carlos Lopez-Cantera on WLTV in the final weeks of the Miami-Dade property appraiser’s race.

The ads included a cropped photo of Lopez-Cantera giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute. Lopez-Cantera called the ads misleading and threatened to sue Accountability Watchdog and stations running the ad. Some stations pulled the ad, but others did not.

In our earlier report on fact checking in Denver, we outlined the balancing act stations are in, caught between their desire to maximize their political ad profits with their FCC-mandated responsibility to serve the public interest.

WLTV’s political files included an email exchange documenting an internal debate over whether to run the ad. The emails pick up mid-stream, with Accountability Watchdog trying to provide some proof for the claims in its ad. In the first email, Stephanie Womble, PBA’s director of public relations, wrote to WLTV staff:

“While we stand by the content of this ad, I would prefer to err on the side of caution and ask that you pull the commercial. Instead please air our other … piece regarding Gimenez.”

(Womble is referring here to Carlos Gimenez, then a candidate for Miami-Dade mayor.)

Luisa Talavera, an account executive with Univision Local Media, then forwarded this email to a number of sales and communications staff at Univision. One staffer asked Talavera if the Gimenez spot had “been approved by Legal to air.” Talavera confirmed that the Univision legal team had approved the Gimenez ad and promised to forward a memo to that effect. A Univision general manager then authorized the change.

These emails provide a rare look at a station’s internal debates and process for reviewing political ads. WLTV’s files also raise real questions about the kind of coordination that may exist between candidates and third-party groups. And they show how donors can funnel money into an array of groups to hide the full extent of their influence on local and state politics.

Original photo by anneh632

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