NH Attorney General: Mailers in congressional race violate state law

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/5/2022 8:47:03 PM
Modified: 9/5/2022 8:43:16 PM

LEBANON — Less than two weeks before the 2022 primary, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is investigating a number of unlawful political advertising mailers pertaining to candidates in the 2nd Congressional District race that were funded anonymously and distributed to residents, including in Lebanon.

On Friday, New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella stated in a new release that “an unknown entity” has paid for at least four political mailers that have been sent to voters. The mailers do not include the name of the person or organization responsible for the advertisement.

New Hampshire RSA 664:14 states political advertising must include the name and address — either physical or a website — of a the entity responsible for the advertisement, including payment.

The mailers focus on two Republican candidates for the district: Bob Burns, a business owner and former Hillsboro County treasurer from Bedford, and Keene Mayor George Hansel.

Burns and Hansel, along with Weare resident Lily Tang Williams, are vying for the Republican Party’s nomination to face incumbent U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, a Democrat, in November. The New Hampshire Primary Election will be on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

According to a recent Granite State Poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, released on Wednesday, Burns leads in the polls, with support from 32% of surveyed Republican voters, followed by Hansel with 18% and Williams with 10%. However, 37% of likely voters remain undecided, the poll found.

The anonymous mailers appear to promote Burns over Hansel, portraying Burns as a “100% pro-Trump” candidate who opposes sanctuary cities, gun laws and government-mandated lockdowns, while claiming that Hansel does not. At least two of the mailers included leading question such as, “Who shares your values?” and “Which candidate will protect your rights or freedom?”

One mailer features a quote from Burns that attributes illegal immigration to “cities like (Hansel’s) sanctuary city, Keene,” a reference to Keene’s 2017 resolution to protect immigrants from inquiries into their immigration status or from being detained for federal immigration officers unless required by law or ordered by a judicial bench warrant.

The campaigns of Burns, Hansel and Kuster all said they had no involvement in the mailers and no knowledge of the party responsible for them.

Lebanon resident Carl Porter said he notified the state Attorney General’s Office immediately after he and his wife received two of these mailers last week.

“I feel that this nation was built on laws, and election laws are meant to create a fair playing field,” Porter told the Valley News. “A candidate or a candidate with supporters who believe they are above the law is really not fit to serve.”

The Attorney General’s Office confirmed that the mailers were produced by Massachusetts printing company Reynolds DeWalt, which refused to disclose the name of the party responsible for the mailers. Legal counsel for the printing company said that only four mailers without the “paid for” information left the printers.

Meanwhile, the candidates said they have their suspicions about possible parties responsible for the mailers.

Both Burns and the Hansel campaign said the Democratic Party could have funded the anonymous mailers, noting that Reynolds DeWalt in previous elections had printed material for many Democratic Party candidates and progressive groups.

Kevin Chrisom, deputy campaign manager for Hansel, claimed that the New Hampshire Democrats are more worried about facing Hansel than Burns in the general election, and suggested that the Democrats might use the anonymous mailers to help Burns in the Republican primary.

“They know that Mayor Hansel has a proven track record of winning elections in a community with a large constituency,” Chrisom said. “Burns does not have that same track record.”

Hansel is serving his second term as Keene mayor, winning election in 2019 with 52% of the vote in a city that traditionally leans heavily toward Democratic candidates. In 2021, Hansel won re-election with overwhelming support from all five city wards.

Burns told the Valley News that he does not see the mailers as a clear promotion of either candidate, but rather an informative comparison of the candidates based on issues.

“Does the mailer explicitly say who to vote for?” Burns said. “They are neither for nor against a candidate. They just list facts about each candidate’s position.”

Burns acknowledged that the mailers might appeal to pro-Trump Republican voters in the primary, though the mailers might also be intended to “create turmoil within the party.”

“Twenty-six percent of Republicans say they don’t vote for candidates who support Trump,” Burns said.

Burns also alleged that Hansel claimed to know the specific party responsible for the mailers, which Hansel’s campaign adamantly denied.

“That’s totally not true,” Chrisom told the Valley News. “We were as surprised as anyone when this story came out.”

Jon Gonin, spokesman for Kuster’s campaign, said their campaign “had no involvement with the mailers.”

Michael Garrity of the Attorney General’s Office said its Election Law Unit routinely investigates political campaign complaints. The failure to identify the party responsible for funding a political advertising mailer is categorized as a misdemeanor offense if the guilty party is a natural person, or a felony offense if the party is an organization.

The Attorney General’s Office also countered Burns’ claimed “understanding” that these mailers do not constitute advertisements.

“Courts have held that, even if the advertising does not say ‘vote for’ or ‘vote against’ a certain candidate, if the only reasonable interpretation of the communication is as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate, then it is express advocacy,” Formella stated in his news release. “As a result, in general, when a communication mentions elections, candidates, or political parties, it must include a paid-for disclaimer.”

Patrick Adrian can be reached at pfadrian25@gmail.com.

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