A Push-Poll Scandal?

A nonprofit group accused of using aggressive telephone "push-polling" to attack opponents of GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee shares major donors with Huckabee's official presidential campaign, according to government records.

Common Sense Issues is a tax-exempt group registered in Delaware whose organizers have acknowledged the use of controversial telephone polling tactics to promote Huckabee's presidential bid—and allegedly to trash the campaigns of the former Arkansas governor's rivals. The nonprofit also helped set up and run Trusthuckabee.com, a Web site that was involved in front-line efforts to recruit and mobilize Huckabee supporters to turn out for the Iowa caucuses.

Rival candidates have criticized Common Sense Issues's tactics, questioning whether the group's ties to the Huckabee campaign are really arms-length—as required by federal law. The Huckabee campaign has distanced itself from Common Sense Issues, renouncing its support and joining his rivals in calling for investigations into the nonprofit's activities.

Patrick Davis, a former national Republican Party staffer who serves as executive director for the group, defended its telephone tactics, in which an automated voice provides negative information to voters about rival candidates. In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK, Davis insisted, "Candidates that cry foul on these personalized educational artificial-intelligence calls are usually candidates who take one stand on an issue in front of one audience and a different stand on the same issue in front of a different audience. We will admit, in those cases, that sometimes the truth hurts."

Federal election law allows nonprofit groups like Common Sense Issues, whose supporters can make unlimited financial contributions, to campaign on behalf of particular candidates for office—provided they do so entirely independently of the candidates' official campaigns. Although both Common Sense Issues and Huckabee's campaign have denied any connection with each other, critics have complained about indications of possible collaboration. They note that Trusthuckabee.com touted its efforts to organize an Iowa get-out-the-vote effort for the candidate. What's more, according to a recent Federal Election Commission filing, key donors to Common Sense Issues are also financial backers of Huckabee's campaign.

In his e-mail to NEWSWEEK, however, Davis insisted, "There is no coordination between Common Sense Issues and any campaign." He added, "Most every media report speaks to Gov. Huckabee trailing in the money race, so it should not be surprising that individuals would also give money directly to the campaign." A Huckabee campaign spokeswoman did not respond to an e-mail inquiry from NEWSWEEK.

Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer who specializes in federal election law, said that in practice it is very hard to prove "coordination" between a campaign and a sympathetic nonprofit like Common Sense. He said that it is not legal proof of coordination even if, as in this case, Huckabee's campaign and Common Sense share financial backers who contributed to both around the same time. In order to prove coordination, Baran said, federal investigators normally would have to take testimony and get copies of campaign documents, such as cell phone or e-mail records, that show a pattern of contacts between the campaign and the tax-exempt outside group.

There is certainly evidence that some people who made donations to Huckabee's campaign also wound up writing checks to Common Sense Issues within a short span of time. Dallas financial planner Arch Bonnema told NEWSWEEK that he contributed to both Huckabee's campaign and Common Sense Issues within a matter of weeks last month. He says he made a $1,500 donation to Huckabee's campaign after attending a large fund-raiser for Huckabee at a Dallas club. Bonnema says that two or three weeks later he was invited to a more exclusive event in Dallas sponsored by Common Sense Issues. After attending this much smaller event, Bonnema says he and his wife agreed to give a $5,000 contribution to the pro-Huckabee nonprofit. Their donations, along with a handful of other donations, most from wealthy Texas contributors, were publicly reported by Common Sense Issues in a report filed last week with the Federal Election Commission.

Bonnema declined to identify the person who invited him to the Common Sense Issues event, but he says he did not see this person at the earlier Huckabee fund-raiser. Bonnema says he thinks he was invited to contribute to Common Sense because he has given to other Republican causes and candidates in the past. Before deciding to back Huckabee, Bonnema says he supported Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a religious conservative who dropped out of the race in October.

Bonnema said he has met Huckabee only once, at the Dallas fund-raiser. He says he supports Huckabee because of the former Arkansas governor's strongly conservative stance on social issues. "I like Huckabee a lot because he stands for the moral values I stand for. To me that's more important than the economic issues," Bonnema added.

A colorful Texas character, Bonnema has been involved in the past with various high-profile pursuits related to his Christian faith. When Mel Gibson's controversial film "The Passion of the Christ" was released in 2004, Bonnema bought 42,000 tickets to showings of the film at Dallas-area cinemas, which he then distributed for free in local churches.

(Eighteen months ago Bonnema also helped finance and participated in an expedition by a religious group to find Noah's Ark. Bonnema says that the expedition found what appeared to be traces of an ancient ship 13,126 feet up the slope of Mt. Soleiman, a peak in the Caucasus mountain range in Iran. "I think it is Noah's Ark. But I can't prove it is Noah's Ark," Bonnema said. He said that scientists who had conducted work for the Smithsonian Institution had examined some of the materials discovered by the expedition and told him that they included forensic evidence of four cat species not normally known to have inhabited that location. He said the scientists had informed him that if the materials discovered on the mountain were not from Noah's Ark, then other possibilities were that they were materials from an Ark of sanctuary built by the forebears of other religions or the remains of some kind of ship left there by "space aliens." Bonnema declined to identify the scientists who had told him this, saying he is working on a cable TV documentary that will eventually make all the details public.)

Bonnema says he knows that the money he gave to Common Sense Issues was supposed to finance calls to make primary state voters "aware of issues." But he said he had not listened to any of the calls himself and also said he was unaware of any controversy surrounding the activities of Common Sense Issues or its phone bank activities.

In two Federal Election Commission filings submitted last week, Common Sense Issues disclosed that during December and January it had raised—and spent—just over $60,000. Contributors included Bonnema and a handful of other apparently wealthy Texans, at least one of whom, Gene E. Phillips, also held a large fund-raiser for Huckabee's campaign in Dallas in December.

In its FEC filing Common Sense Issues disclosed that it had spent much of its contributions on what were described as pro-Huckabee "GOTV"—get out the vote—efforts. Some of the money was paid to an advertising agency and a T-shirt manufacturer. The nonprofit also reported that it had paid out more than $4,000 on Jan. 2, 2008—the day before the Iowa caucuses—to a suburban Washington, D.C., firm called CC Advertising, whose Web site says it specializes in conducting marketing and political surveys using automated calling systems equipped with voice-recognition software.

Harold (Zeke) Swift, the Cincinnati-based president of Common Sense Issues, confirmed to NEWSWEEK that the group hired CC Advertising to make informational calls to prospective voters using what he described as "artificial-intelligence dialogue." He also confirmed that these calls involved the machine's asking voters questions about their views on issues, and, depending upon how they responded to the machine, providing them with information on rival candidates' positions. (A spokesman for CC Advertising declined to comment.)

Supporters of Huckabee's major rivals—including Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain—have complained that the automated calls amounted to negative "push-polling." If the people who were called gave responses related to his foes, Huckabee's opponents complained, the robo-call machines gave out information that the rival candidates considered to be negative toward them.

However, Swift insisted, "Helping a voter to see what the issues are is not negative." On the other hand, he acknowledged that if a voter believes being presented with information about a rival political candidate's views "is by definition negative, I'm not going to quibble on that." Swift confirmed that Common Sense Issues was a descendant of similarly named nonprofit groups involved in controversial telephone activity during the 2006 midterm elections.

In his e-mail to NEWSWEEK, Davis, Common Sense's executive director, wrote, "The fact is that many of Huckabee's presidential rivals tried to hire our phone vendor, CC Advertising, because of their one-of-a-kind technology that uses artificial intelligence to enable personalized conversations with citizens on issues. Since Common Sense Issues secured exclusive access and the other campaigns are blocked, it is not surprising that they would complain." He added, "Please note that not a single campaign has said that the information in our phone calls is not factual—just that they don't like it."