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According to Lofstrom, Griffin told Ayers that his talents were being wasted in politics and he should be working for his hedge fund.

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As for Ayers, he had amassed a Rolodex that would be the envy of his peers. Someone who knows him well said: In all, it was an experience totally unlike those of his contemporaries, who were working their way up on candidate campaigns or through other party organs with far greater restrictions on raising and spending money. When Ayers concluded his term in early , he was being talked about as a successor to Karl Rove. He was expected to follow a well-trodden path: And so his friends were baffled when Ayers took a partnership at a media buying firm that was barely known in D.

Its founder, a brash New Yorker named David Bienstock, was about as far away as you could get from the Washington establishment. The real money is in political advertising. Even the standard way of doing business is, frankly, dubious. There can be variations on the model, but usually a consultant hired by a campaign or political action committee chooses a creative firm to make its TV ads.

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The consultant also hires a media buying firm to negotiate with TV stations over distribution. And this is where the dubiousness comes in: Neither the candidate nor the donors typically have any idea how the split is divided. Often, at the end of the election, the TV station will not have run the exact number of ads the media buyer purchased.


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So the stations rebate the media buyer, who—in theory—is supposed to return that money to the campaign. The sheer volume and speed of the transactions can obfuscate a lot of double-dealing. Campaigns are largely forced to trust that the media buyers pay the TV stations the contracted amount for the right ad spots. Two buyers emphasized to me that they pride themselves on returning leftover funds, suggesting that such scrupulousness may be the exception rather than the rule.

It is also not unusual, I was informed by a handful of industry insiders, for the consultant to privately negotiate a fee for bringing the media buyer the business. All of which provides a powerful incentive for the consultant to use the media buyer who will give him the best deal, not the one who will deliver the most effective ads. Until about a decade ago, Target Enterprises hardly had a presence in national political advertising. But in his West Coast milieu, David Bienstock was known as a consummate hustler. Bienstock, who did not comment for this article, has a taste for lavish real estate.

He changes cars often and used to drive a gullwing model with doors that opened upward. In , Bienstock acquired a right-hand man who could help him break into national politics. The RGA had never used Target before So they invited Ayers and Bennecke to a retreat at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas over the weekend of November 20 to cement a deal. Their experiences were not identical, but two consultants gave very similar accounts of someone at Target proposing the following arrangement: Target would charge the campaign a much lower fee than its competitors.

The Target representative would go on to explain that the company would later invoice for an amount that represented a payment for how much the firm had saved the campaign—with Target determining what the savings had been. Bennecke and Target did not respond to questions about Target, its business practices and its relationship with the RGA. He was taking a hiatus. As He often does in walks of faith, He has called me to a higher purpose. The Pawlenty campaign was a bust, fizzling in less than three months and somehow racking up a debt of half a million dollars.

Ayers was not legally required to disclose his relationship with Target to the campaign, but various consultants I talked to argued that it would have been the ethically correct thing to do.

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Pawlenty paused. After the campaign wound down, Ayers returned to Target and immediately resumed pitching the firm to his political friends. One recalled his firm receiving a classic Bienstock dangle: And Target itself was attracting some scrutiny. Based on the accounts of those three people, a clear story emerges. This was not a straightforward task. The FCC mandates that every TV station must maintain a public file recording purchased airtime for political ads, but many records are still kept in paper form.

According to the sources, Baker discovered a discrepancy between the services Target had promised to deliver and what actually ran on the air. Two of the sources recalled that he switched media buying firms. While the groups I run work with a variety of media vendors, we have used Target since and continue to do to this day.

It was during this period that Ayers started aggressively working on races from multiple angles. He stayed on as a partner at Target, but also advised candidates and outside groups through his company, C5. In , Ayers was working as the lead strategist for Bruce Rauner, the Chicago businessman who had launched a bid for governor of Illinois. These arrangements started to become conspicuously convoluted.

Senate in Georgia. Yet a relationship of sorts continued. Ayers had pitched Pence on Target back in Ayers also spent talking up a new media arbitrage fund that would purchase TV advertising slots and resell them for a profit to campaigns of both parties, according to two sources pitched on the idea. He used his extensive Rolodex to enlist potential investors, including Texan oil and gas magnate Toby Neugebauer. After Trump won the nomination, Ayers acted as a part-time, unpaid adviser for the Trump campaign but kept pitching the arbitrage fund.

But perhaps his most ambitious venture was an effort to create his own political star—a candidate with the potential to one day go all the way to the White House. The year-old was an intensely ambitious, chisel-jawed former Navy SEAL and Rhodes scholar turned best-selling author. He had also been a lifelong Democrat until shortly before he entered the GOP primary.

Greitens championed transparency in campaign finance. Greitens replaced his campaign manager with a year-old from Georgia named Austin Chambers. The St. It was important for Greitens not to peak early, he explained, or the other three contenders would have too much time to tear him down. As it happened, a dark money-funded super PAC would play a useful role.

Near the end of the primary, it would emerge that the group was actually backing Greitens. It was an extremely clever ploy. It also allowed Greitens to maintain a lower profile, not to mention his image as a campaign finance crusader. After the negative ads started airing, reporters unearthed video footage that captured Greitens talking with the LG PAC treasurer, Hank Monsees, at a May 19 campaign event.

People started raising the possibility of illegal coordination. Monsees told The Associated Press that he was sitting down by the phones because he has a bad back. After Greitens won easily, the controversy over dark money died down. On January 9, , he was sworn in with Ayers and Chambers at his side. In national races governed by the Federal Election Commission, and in most states, it would be illegal for a campaign to coordinate with outside groups on ads. In Missouri, however, the laws on coordination are less explicit.

Freedom Frontier is no small-time advocacy outfit. It is part of an influential network of dark money groups that funnels donor money into elections nationwide and is clustered around an Ohio lawyer named David Langdon. The network, by design, defies easy explanation—there are nonprofits that fund PACs that fund campaigns, a constellation of blandly named entities linked by the same few legal representatives.

But what is clear is that such groups have become an invaluable weapon in elections. They enable candidates to keep a respectable distance from negative ads, which voters dislike. In addition, nonprofits like Freedom Frontier—so-called c 4 s—are permitted to conceal the identity of donors. Their primary purpose is supposed to be issue-oriented, rather than political, but violations are hard to prove and rarely penalized.

Paul Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a government accountability think tank, said that laws on both the state and federal level have not caught up with the explosion of dark money groups after Citizens United. At the time this was a record-breaking donation in Missouri. It would be considered highly unusual for a consultant of his caliber to simultaneously work on a campaign and for a dark money group supporting that campaign.

The link between Ayers and Freedom Frontier is precisely the kind of association that is nearly impossible to detect in real time under current campaign finance laws. His failure to sell his real estate business—while technically legal because the president is exempt from conflict-of-interest statutes—has cast suspicion over nearly everything he does. It is impossible to tell whether a decision has been motivated by policy or financial self-interest or some combination of the two.

This uncertainty undermines public trust in government—and the dynamic is far from limited to Trump.


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Although Ayers had been a valued member of the transition, he was initially reluctant to take an official administration role. Ayers had lobbied unsuccessfully to succeed Reince Priebus as the chairman of the Republican National Committee. And he remained indispensable to Pence.

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Last spring, he was flying regularly to D. Privately, however, he was less than thrilled with his situation. After checking around with others, this person told Ayers that the proper way to cover those costs was to go through the RNC.

source site Furthermore, this person added, Ayers could not advise the vice president—even voluntarily—while on a business trip paid for by private clients. Ayers, the political veteran recalled, seemed unsatisfied by the conversation. Oh my God: Obst did not respond to a request for comment. These ethical questions only became more acute when Ayers finally entered the White House. Ordinarily, someone with a political consultancy would have been expected to divest himself of it to avoid the potential for conflicts of interest.

For instance, when Karl Rove became George W. Rove also went on to sell his stock portfolio. While the sale was processing, he was prohibited from attending any meetings on energy because he owned Enron stock.

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Separately, Rove got a waiver allowing him to talk to former clients if, for example, there was a government investigation or regulation that directly involved them. By selling his business, Rove had removed the prospect of those conversations being motivated by personal gain. In contrast, by retaining his business, Ayers created a situation where even the most mundane matters could create the appearance of an improper conflict.

Under 18 U. A chief of staff to the vice president can be called upon to help make all kinds of decisions that would have implications for a consulting firm looking for work—whom to endorse, whom to welcome into the White House, where to campaign, which event to show up for.