A secretive nonprofit, which until recently has been known solely for its efforts to unseat New York Democrats, has launched an online campaign in support of Gov. Rick Perry in light of his recent legal troubles.
Virginia-based Common Sense Principles recently relaunched its website, commonsenseprinciples.com, as a defense of Perry against his recent indictment by a Travis County grand jury. A disclaimer at the bottom of the page reads “Paid for by Common Sense Principles” with no further information or link.
“What is going on in Texas?” the headline reads at the top of the site’s homepage, followed by a 25-second YouTube video of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s now-infamous behavior during a April 2013 drunken driving arrest. Perry has been accused of coercing a public servant and abusing his official capacity of governor when he threatened to veto state funds to the public integrity unit of the Travis County DA's office if Lehmberg refused to step down after her arrest. He has said the charges are without merit and politically motivated.
The Common Sense Principles website includes links to articles critical of the indictment and invites visitors to provide their names and email addresses to “sign up for updates.”
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The group has promoted the site online as well. This week, an advertisement for the site reading "Rick Perry - Bogus Indictment. Get the Facts" appeared on Google under searches for “Rick Perry.” Similarly, the Twitter account @CSPrinciples, which used to be devoted to New York politics, began retweeting tweets sympathetic to Perry on Aug. 15 after nearly two years of inactivity.
In New York political circles, public officials and activists have been embroiled in a debate similar to the one going on in Texas over "dark money" groups that are politically active but do not disclose their donors. Common Sense Principles has been described as “sketchy” and “shadowy” in the New York press for the great lengths it has gone to conceal any trace of its donors. The group, which goes by “Common Sense” in its tax filings and “Common Sense NY” in its lobbyist registration with the state of New York, often provides the phone number of HoltzmanVogelJosefiak, a Virginia-based law firm, as its contact in its public filings. Repeated calls to the firm were not returned.
Public records list the group’s president as Chris LaCivita, a Virginia political strategist best known as a paid political consultant for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. Efforts to reach LaCivita were also unsuccessful.
A request for comment to Perry's state political action committee, Texans for Rick Perry, regarding whether it was aware of the group or the source of its financial backing was not returned.
CommonSensePrinciples.com was originally purchased by “strategicadvantageinternational,” according to a search of its registration information. Strategic Advantage International is a Manhattan-based public relations firm that has previously done work for Common Sense Principles. The firm signed a nondisclosure agreement before originally creating the group’s website, according to a 2013 report by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
"Consultant agrees not to speak with any member of the press regarding any aspect of Company's activities without authorization, in writing, from a member of the Board of Directors," the nondisclosure agreement reads, according to the article. "This shall apply to any website, blog, or mainstream media organization and shall apply to any statement, including those made 'off the record' or 'on background.'"
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Daniel Odescalchi, Strategic Advantage International’s president, told The Texas Tribune he no longer has any involvement with Common Sense Principles and could not explain its sudden interest in Texas politics.
“I have not been involved with them for years,” Odescalchi said. “I really can’t help you. I don’t know who’s involved with them anymore. We have nothing to do with the website.”
Common Sense Principles first gained attention in 2010 for sending mailers attacking Democrats in New York. The group ultimately spent $2.5 million in that election cycle and nearly $1 million in targeted mailers attacking Democratic Senate candidates in 2012, according to state records. New York Democrats have accused the group of working in concert with Republicans, a charge Republicans have denied, according to press reports.
The group was one of the targets of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, created by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year but shut down in March by Cuomo among allegations that he was covering up its findings. In a December report on the commission’s investigations into public corruption, the commission singled out Common Sense Principles as “very interested in New York politics, but that operates in its shadows.”
“The story of one group with the nom de guerre of ‘Common Sense Principles’ illustrates just how difficult it is to track down the sources of the cash used to influence our elections,” the commission wrote.
The report described efforts by the commission to trace Common Sense’s activities. The New York-based direct mail company that produced its mailers described Common Sense as a “ghost company” and said it received the order from a “Florida-based intermediary.”
“So who pays for Common Sense’s political spending in New York? Despite issuing a number of subpoenas and conducting several interviews, the Commission still cannot say,” the report reads. “This daisy chain of out-of-state corporations and ‘ghost companies’ appears to exist for one reason: to hide the source of money used to fund negative advertising and influence our local elections.”