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Column: GOP Senate group’s fundraising letter may have violated state law

GOP Senate group's fundraising letter may have violated state law
The L.A. County assessor says a recent GOP fundraising letter seems to have tried to trick recipients into thinking it was from his office.
(Photo illustration by Jerome Adamstein / Los Angeles Times)

The upper left-hand corner of the envelope says “Los Angeles County Area Assessment,” which is strikingly similar to the Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor.

There’s an official-looking seal featuring an eagle and stars. “DO NOT TAMPER OR DESTROY,” the envelope warns ungrammatically but officiously.

But it’s not official correspondence. It’s a fundraising mailer from a Republican Senate group that L.A. County officials say may have violated state law.

“We’re very sensitive to this,” Assessor Jeff Prang told me. “The envelope clearly resembles letters from my office, right down to the typeface.”

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The letter within, signed by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, more clearly defines the mailer as a “Republican Party Area Assessment.”

It purports to be a survey aimed at “compiling a detailed, highly accurate profile of GOP voters across the nation.”

Sample question: “Do you believe Senate Republicans should continue standing firmly with President Trump against the impeachment-obsessed socialists in the House of Representatives, who have been trying to tear the president down since his first day in office?”

In reality, the four-page letter is a vehicle for no fewer than five separate requests for a contribution of as much as $1,000.

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The committee, it says, “is using every dollar we raise to hold Democrats accountable for their impeachment crusade.”

“That’s why our Republican Senate Majority has been so crucial,” Young writes. “The House is controlled by power-mad socialists who will do anything to try and undermine our president.”

The website of the National Republican Senatorial Committee describes it as “the only national organization solely devoted to strengthening the Republican Senate majority and electing Republicans to the United States Senate.”

It’s a political campaign group, not a government entity. Democratic senators have a similar fundraising organization.

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Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the GOP committee, noted that beneath “Los Angeles County Area Assessment,” the envelope says “NRSC” and includes the committee’s Washington address.

I countered that few non-politicos would be able to say what NRSC stands for (I couldn’t have before this column), and that the all-caps L.A. County part is much more prominent than the committee address, which isn’t all caps and is in a smaller type face.

Hunt declined to respond to that, or to my question as to whether the mailer’s envelope had been similarly “localized” in cities and counties nationwide.

The commies-under-the-bed content of the mailer notwithstanding, it was a red flag for local authorities when calls started coming in from people asking why Prang, a Democrat, was involved with a GOP fundraising effort.

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“I’m an elected official,” Prang said. “I don’t want people asking what I’m doing sending out mail on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.”

He reached out to County Counsel Mary Wickham for a legal opinion. He said she determined that the GOP mailer could violate Section 17533.6 of the California Business and Professions Code.

The code states that it’s illegal for “a nongovernmental entity to use a seal, emblem, insignia, trade or brand name, or any other term, symbol or content that reasonably could be interpreted or construed as implying” an affiliation with an official agency.

Prang said Wickham concluded that “there was sufficient information in the letter to make you believe it’s misleading.”

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Stephen Whitmore, a spokesman for Prang, went a step further by revealing that Wickham’s office offered to send the National Republican Senatorial Committee a cease-and-desist order.

“They wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t think there was a violation of the code,” Whitmore told me.

No one at Wickham’s office responded to my requests for comment.

Rather than a cease-and-desist order, Prang sent a polite letter to Young asking that the National Republican Senatorial Committee stop confusing people with mailers that could appear to be from his office.

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“I am certain that you can appreciate the sensitivity that accompanies such confusion and hope that you can take steps going forward to reduce this risk of such confusion in Los Angeles County and California,” he wrote.

No one at Young’s office responded to my request for comment.

Although Prang said this was the first time his office has been pulled into a political fundraising effort, he’s no stranger to misleading mailers.

Prang issued a warning last year after I wrote about a sneaky mailer from a company charging $89 for a copy of a homeowner’s property deed. The actual cost for a duplicate deed was $3.

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“Property owners should closely examine any official-looking mailers,” Prang said in his warning. “They should be aware of deed scams and unsolicited mailings designed to look as if they’ve been issued by a government agency.”

Dubious solicitations from companies are one thing. Questionable missives from political entities are something else.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Prang said of the Republican mailer.

Not that there’d be much confusion once recipients got past the tricky envelope and examined the contents within.

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“Now that it’s been exposed that the Obama-era FBI abused its power and spied on President Trump’s campaign, it’s more clear than ever that The Swamp will do everything possible to destroy his administration and stop his pro-jobs, pro-borders, pro-America agenda,” the letter says.

PolitiFact says the spying claim — a persistent GOP talking point — is false.

Meanwhile, Trump’s pro-jobs, pro-borders, pro-America agenda has been disrupted by a deadly pandemic, the worst economy since the Great Depression, a disastrous debate performance and reports that the president engaged in years of aggressive tax avoidance.

Oh, and Trump was hospitalized for COVID-19 after months of downplaying the severity of the virus.

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Democrats, the GOP letter says, “are frantically throwing up roadblocks to our conservative reform agenda and claiming that they are the ones who represent the will of the people.”

I don’t know about that. But I do know this: Trying to dupe potential donors with letters masquerading as official correspondence isn’t pro-anything.

It’s anti-honesty.


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