For the past decade, candidates for federal office have been required by law to take personal responsibility for their political ads, which now often close with cheery proclamations that “I approved this message.” The rule was put in place partly in an effort to rein in the vitriol in attack ads, figuring candidates might think twice about running negative spots that would end with their personal endorsement of the nasty message.
So was that the demise of negative advertising? Of course not. Instead, campaigns about to launch an attack have simply moved the candidate’s personal disclosure to the beginning of the ad, where it’s less likely to resonate once the guns start blazing. That is the case with a new spot from Democrat Elizabeth Esty, taking aim at the well-financed candidacy of Dan Roberti, one of Esty’s two opponents in the Democratic primary race for the fifth Congressional District seat. The ad, titled “It’s a Mess,” takes generic swipes at Roberti, saying he would make Washington worse and is already part of what’s wrong with national politics.
Those are statements of opinion and not subject to fact-checking. But the spot also makes four specific assertions about Roberti and his campaign. It claims that Roberti has no work history in Connecticut, that he is the co-owner of a “powerful Washington special-interest lobbying firm,” that clients of that firm are “bankrolling” his campaign, and that those same lobbyist clients have funded a Super PAC supporting his campaign. There is at least a partial factual foundation for all of those claims. But the ad stretches the typical definition of “bankrolling” to the point that it could mislead viewers, and there is a potentially important element left out of the assertion on the Super PAC. Combined, those issues keep the ad from earning a higher rating.
Let’s take the claims one-by-one. The assertion that Roberti has no work history comes from a biting Torrington Register Citizen editorial endorsing Esty in the race, and in the context of traditional employment, it stands up to scrutiny. Roberti has touted his work with a homeless shelter in Spokane, Wash., and his efforts following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. More recently, he commuted to New York City and worked at a public relations firm.Some of his PR work occasionally brought him to Connecticut, and Roberti has also been active in the Democratic party within the state. But as “work history” is generally understood, it is a fair claim to say he has no such history in Connecticut.
The claim that Roberti is co-owner of a Washington lobbying firm has brought a strong rebuke from the Roberti camp, which accuses Esty of claiming Roberti is a lobbyist. But the Esty ad is clear in describing him only as a co-owner of the firm, with no direct implication that he has an active role in the company’s operations. That ownership is complicated – until a recent divestiture, Roberti was a beneficiary of a trust that held the assets of Roberti Associates, a lobbying firm run by his father. But on the whole, it was reasonable to describe him as a co-owner.
Where the Esty ad skates over the line is in its representation of Roberti’s campaign finances. After connecting Roberti to the “Washington special-interest lobbying firm,” the commercial states: “No wonder they’re bankrolling Roberti’s campaign.” That claim, including the specific word choice, are also drawn from the Register Citizen editorial, which stated Roberti was a candidate “only because his father, Vin Roberti, is one of Washington, D.C.’s biggest lobbyists, and his father’s wealthy out-of-state friends and clients have bankrolled his campaign.”
Roberti has received an extraordinary amount of money from outside Connecticut and he has acknowledged much of it is from family friends. But the Esty ad doesn’t mention money from out-of-state friends, and instead focuses only on contributions from those special-interest clients of the lobbying firm. And those donations do not make up a substantial portion of the Roberti camp’s money.
An analysis of campaign-finance records shows a little more than $60,000 donated to Roberti by individuals or PACs affiliated with current or former clients of Roberti Associates. That amounts to barely 5 percent of the more than $1.2 million Roberti has collected in donations, and an even smaller portion – about 3.5 percent – of overall funding, given that at the time the ad began running, Roberti had personally loaned the campaign more than $500,000.
“Bankrolling” an endeavor gives the impression of providing significant and critical funding. As used by the Register Citizen – which included hundreds of thousands of dollars from out-of-state family friends – the term could be supportable. But with client-related donations amounting to only $60,000 out of a war chest that approached $1.8 million at the time the ad came out, it is misleading to suggest those interests are bankrolling Roberti’s campaign.
There is a lesser problem with the assertion that clients of the lobbying firm are funding a Super PAC called New Directions for America, which has spent money only on Roberti’s behalf. The only disclosure form filed so far by the PAC shows five donors giving a total of $95,000. Two of the five contributors, accounting for $20,000 of the $95,000, are companies that have hired Roberti Associates – a pair of related property management companies in New York called Hemmerdinger Corp. and ATCO. That would be sufficient to say that clients are “funding” the PAC. But the ad focuses on Roberti Associates’ work as a lobbying firm and leaves the impression that the PAC has been supported by clients who hired the firm to influence politicians. While Hemmerdinger and ATCO were clients, the Roberti campaign maintains that they hired Roberti Associates for consulting services, not lobbying services. Lobbyist disclosure forms filed with New York City, New York State and the federal government do not show any lobbyist expenses reported by Roberti Associates or related companies on behalf of Hemmerdinger or ATCO.
Roberti is just 30 years old, and exploring the role of his politically connected lobbyist father is fair game, as is raising the issue of whether clients of the firm would have a special incentive to assist in the attempt to put a Roberti in Congress. But Esty’s ad, in focusing on donations from lobbyist clients of Roberti Associates, stretches the language too far, particularly in its claim that his campaign is bankrolled by special interest clients of the lobbying firm. As such, we rate this ad Somewhat Misleading.
Watch Esty’s ad below. And click here for more information on Claim Check.