A mysterious super PAC that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of radio and television ads in March advocating the election of the Democratic candidate for governor Adam Edelen shed the first light on its own inner workings on Friday, when it filed its initial report to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance and revealed its deep-pocketed funders and consultants.
While Kentuckians for a Better Future is registered as being unaffiliated with the campaign of Edelen and his running mate, Gill Holland, meaning the PAC is legally barred from coordinating strategy with it in any way, its list of six donors hit close to home — mostly consisting of family members and business partners.
Of the PAC’s $682,000 of monetary and in-kind contributions since the beginning of the year, $500,000 came via one huge check from the philanthropist Christy Brown — Holland’s mother-in-law — while another $41,000 came from the 21c Museum Hotels founder Steve Wilson, married to another relative in the Brown family.
Two of the remaining large donors to Kentuckians for a Better Future have close business ties with Edelen himself.
Arcadia Power owner Kiran Bhatraju, who co-owns Goldenrod Renewables with Edelen, contributed $25,000. Goldenrod Renewables shares signage with other companies on the door of the downtown Lexington office suite that Edelen uses as his personal and business office space, including Bacon, Farmer Workman — an engineering services firm that is owned by Mark Workman, who also gave $15,000 to the PAC.
But the financial report of Kentuckians for a Better Future revealed the ties spread beyond just the PAC’s donors, but also the consultants it hired.
Also sharing Edelen’s office suite is the Lexington branch of the public relations firm Boxcar, whose director Geoff Dunn helped organize EDC Holdings, another Edelen-owned firm. The Lexington Herald-Leader quoted Edelen’s campaign manager last month as saying that EDC Holdings is how Edelen, Dunn and a fellow business partner, Nathan Cryder, pay for the office space they share.
Besides the over $464,000 spent directly on media buys, the biggest expense listed for Kentuckians for a Better Future was the $70,100 of consulting fees to Boxcar — the public relations firm that lists the same 300 W. Main St., Suite 201 address that Edelen’s campaign used when he first filed to run for governor in the secretary of state’s office in January.
Despite all of these family, business and office suite connections to the super PAC and its consultant, Edelen’s campaign manager, Matt Erwin, told Insider Louisville in a statement that its staff has been vigilant in following campaign laws to not approach the line of illegal coordination with those groups.
“Campaigns are not permitted to coordinate with unauthorized campaign committees, and we take that very seriously,” stated Erwin. “Our campaign has taken every step to make sure our candidates, staff, and leadership team members were provided, by the campaign’s legal counsel, with training and guidelines to ensure full and total compliance with the law. That’s exactly we’ve done.”
The chairman of Kentuckians for a Better Future, Dustin Robinson, and its treasurer, Dustin Pederson, did not return numerous voicemails left by Insider on Monday and Tuesday. Dunn of Boxcar PR also did not return multiple voicemails and an email.
However, the Boxcar PR founder Bob Gunnell answered questions about the type of work the firm provided to Kentuckians for a Better Future and the steps they took to avoid illegal coordination, providing copies of legal memos sent to the PAC in February from a law firm based in Washington, D.C., detailing the dos and don’ts of interacting with the Edelen campaign.
To ensure that Boxcar employees remained in compliance, the attorneys wrote that “Boxcar PR and the Campaign should maintain separate office space and should not work in contiguous offices spaces, unless the spaces are separated by walls where each side will not be privy to electronic or oral conversations.”
The memo added that Boxcar should not have access to campaign files or computers — suggesting those should be locked up and password protected — and their employees “should refrain from discussing any strategic, non-public information” like polling, research, targeting and advertisements with Edelen’s staff and consultants.
Gunnell told Insider that not much had to change in the office space in order to remain in full legal compliance, as Edelen’s office was on the other side of the suite from Dunn’s, with Cryder’s office in between the two. He added that Edelen has been so busy campaigning around the state that he had rarely been in the office this year.
According to Gunnell, Boxcar provided services to the PAC that included media monitoring, graphic design, event management, crisis communications and fundraising. He added that the firm’s employees interacted with Christy Brown, Steve Wilson and Mark Workman, but not Kiran Bhatraju.
Kentuckians for a Better Future was first registered with the state as a PAC on Dec. 13, just two days after its web address was purchased by a user that had its identity blocked. Five hours after the PAC’s web address was created, edelenforgovernor.com was registered by Fusioncorp, the firm that has been paid $3,786 for website services by the Edelen campaign during the first four months of this year. That web address forwards to adamedelen.com, his campaign website.
Gunnell told Insider that Boxcar was not involved in the purchase the website domain for Kentuckians for a Better Future, and reiterated that “no coordination existed between Edelen, KBF or Boxcar.”
Asked to comment about the Edelen and Holland’s family and business connections to Kentuckians for a Better Future, Attorney General Andy Beshear’s campaign manager, Eric Hyers, issued a statement suggesting that Edelen’s often-repeated claim to reject all PAC money has now been rendered hollow.
“The Edelen/Holland ticket should explain why, after repeatedly claiming they won’t take a dime of PAC money, they are being propped up by a super PAC funded by their family, friends, and even corporate donations, all while refusing to be transparent and release their tax returns,” stated Hyers. “I guess the Edelen/Holland ticket thinks PACs are fine if you put the word ‘super’ in front of it.”
A campaign spokesperson for the House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins — the third leading contender in the Democratic primary for governor in three weeks — did not return an email requesting comment for this story.
Kentucky has been no stranger to shadowy super PACs funded with $100,000 checks flooding the airwaves with campaign ads over the past decade, most notably the ones helping to lift Sen. Mitch McConnell to a blowout victory over Alison Lundergan Grimes in 2014 — staffed by former longtime aides of the senator.
Beshear is already familiar with such unaffiliated outside groups, as his narrow victory in the 2015 race for attorney general may not have happened without the help of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, a 527 group that directed funds to a PAC that spent over $1 million late in the race, largely on negative ads mocking his Republican opponent Sen. Whitney Westerfield.
As an example of how quickly this can take place, on Oct. 19 of that year, the Democratic Attorneys General Association received $100,000 from Purdue Pharma, $50,000 from CVS Pharmacy and $25,000 from the tobacco giant Altria, the same day that this 527 group transferred $250,000 to the Bluegrass Alliance for Consumer Rights super PAC, which blanketed the airwaves with ads in the closing weeks of the race.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association has endorsed Beshear’s campaign in this year’s race for governor but has not yet made any moves to spend money in Kentucky.
While no unaffiliated super PAC has been created to support Rocky Adkins, his campaign did post three minutes of video b-roll with no audio on its YouTube account this week — a common tactic of campaigns in recent years to allow super PACs to use such clips in TV ads to support that candidate, while steering legally clear of coordinating with his or her campaign.
Kentuckians for a Better Future has been off the airwaves for weeks — but that could also change again quickly with a signature on a few more very large checks.