Joel Botts doesn’t remember the day it all happened — the day he became the center of attention in the most expensive U.S. Senate race in America.
All he remembers is that it was T-shirt weather in the fall of 2015. He drove up to Wilmington, Ohio, a city on I-71 north of Cincinnati, from his small town about 25 miles from the Ohio River.
He popped in to see a friend, and there was the video camera crew. They were asking about his friend’s job loss at the big DHL facility — one of 7,500 jobs back in 2008.
Botts had lost his job there, too. It was the most difficult chapter of his life, so he was asked to tell his story.
He said he gave them lots of details, but can’t recall who the video production team said hired them or what they would do with his story.
Botts wasn’t seeking fame. He didn’t sell his story. “I just put it out of my mind until someone said, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV,’” said Botts, who partly blames former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland for not doing more to stop the closure.
What he said was enough, though, for a super Political Action Committee, funded by big donors who don’t live in Ohio, to string together pieces of truth that left out lots of important facts in order to take a right hook at Strickland, a Democrat, running against incumbent U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
Doing the dirty work
Welcome to the world of Super PACs, giant organizations funded by millionaires and billionaires who operate mostly in secret, unaccountable for what they do most: Attack ads.
Super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund of Arlington, Va., hired the camera crew to make the short video about Botts then paid $1.5 million to an affiliated tech firm to target it to critical voters.
Increasingly, it is groups such as these filling local television in Ohio to not build up, but to tear down candidates for public office.
Wealthy mega donors are behind it all. Instead of moving to Ohio and voting for the candidate of their choice, they spend millions of dollars to persuade Buckeyes to vote a particular way.
Their attack ads often string together pieces of truth that in the end deliver a distorted message.
That leaves voters like Dan Page, a pastor who lives in Cuyahoga Falls, feeling “impotent to make changes.”
“Follow the money,” he said. “Why would someone pour that kind of money into something? Ideally it would be something that’s beneficial to everyone. But the truth is 99 times out of 100, [it’s] what’s in it for me. That’s why I’m giving you all of this money.”
And the Super PACs — whether liberal or conservative — refuse to discuss their donors, their strategies, or even the social impact of the constant barrage of negative messaging on Ohioans.
“As long as they’ve got the money and they realize that if, ‘I throw this amount of money at this, my return on my investment is going to be far greater, they’ll just keep doing it,” said Page, 57.
And that they will.
Asked if he would discuss his PAC operations, one insider said: “My bosses would flip their [expletive].” He refused an on-the-record interview.
“It’s Politics 101: The folks who are writing the big checks typically don’t want the publicity and probably wouldn’t enjoy being talked about in the third person,” said Ken Goldstein, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco. “My sense is the donor class is getting a little more involved in the decision making but generally cede that to the folks who run the campaign.”
The Beacon Journal tried repeatedly for an interview with spokesman Bill Riggs of Freedom Partners, the PAC trying so hard to convince Ohioans they should not trust Ted Strickland.
After several emails, Riggs agreed to talk on the phone about the story, but only if his comments weren’t recorded or used. As a courtesy, the Beacon Journal sketched out the interview questions in another email.
Riggs never gave the interview.
However, the PAC repeatedly notified the Beacon Journal of new ad buys and offered an exclusive peek at an ad before it was released — a practice that sometimes wins the PACs free exposure.
The Beacon Journal also emailed Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC, to inquire about “how your organization works with political consultants, candidates (if at all) and advertisers to craft messages and get them in front of Ohioans.”
Shah declined an interview, but managed to fire off a quote blasting Portman.
“[I] should also note that we do work with a team of consultants on strategy but we are not legally permitted to coordinate with candidates as we are an independent organization,” Shah wrote on April 12. “[I’m] going to decline to further discuss budget/strategy but if you want to hop on the phone to talk about anything else …”
“I’m not asking about budget or strategy,” a reporter replied, eventually having another off-the-record phone conversation that, again, produced no subsequent interview.
Who talked to Botts?
Shrouded in that kind of secrecy, the camera crew that talked with Botts headed to wherever home is, talked with whoever their bosses were, and the Botts-DHL commercial made it to Ohio television at the expense of Freedom Partners.
Freedom Partners, a Super PAC, wasn’t the first to pay a camera crew to travel to Wilmington.
Last year, Americans for Prosperity commissioned a similar ad featuring another displaced DHL worker. The nonprofit organization, unlike Super PACs, is only required to disclose spending — not donors — to remain tax-exempt.
It’s well-known, though, that Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is the forerunner to Freedom Partners. The organizations share billionaire benefactors, including the Koch brothers, whose family business, Koch Industries, is the second-largest private firm in the country. It’s the chief importer of Canadian oil and has done well in the past extracting profits from coal.
Federal tax filings show AFP and its private foundation have a combined annual income of $57 million, used to advance conservative think-tanks and promote free-market solutions to counter big government and regulations. AFP spent $1.6 million to run the first political ad in August. Federal Election Commission filings indicate Sandler-Innocenzi, a Virginia-based full-service advertising firm for Republicans, and i360, a tech firm with a P.O. Box in Maryland, produced and placed both ads.
The firms took a reporter’s calls and emails but would not agree to an interview to talk about their interest in Ohio voters or why some, but not all, of Botts’ comments were used.
Sandler-Innocenzi, according to its website, has one goal: “We target the voters you need, reaching them with maximum exposure, and minimum expense. Our guideline for efficient, effective political media buying: Move public opinion, at the lowest possible cost.”
“As a matter of policy, we don’t comment to the press about current client work,” the firm’s vice president, Ryan Horn, said.
Rest of Botts’ story
Botts, now 58, had worked as a supervisor at Airborne Express in Wilmington for 25 years — half his life. He told the cameras how DHL, the subsidiary of a German company, had bought Airborne and seemed hellbent on spending. The out-of-state camera crew listened, paying close attention to each Strickland reference, although Botts talked more broadly about life during the Great Recession.
“I really think it’s a combination of errors,” Botts said of his lost job, speaking on the phone from his home in Winchester. “It’s just a little bit of this and a little bit of that and how the economy was going around the country… Everything kind of hit the fan at once.”
Botts said he believes Strickland created a tax-and-spend environment that chased some jobs out of Ohio. Then, when he lost his own job, he didn’t feel Strickland, who visited the town of 13,000 after the announcement to cut 7,500 jobs, did enough.
The 30-second attack ad made it sound as though Strickland was at fault.
The whole story, though, began in 2003 when DHL purchased Airborne, a fact omitted from the politicized version of Botts’ lengthier account. The closing came in November 2008, well into a market crash and the Great Recession, in which nearly 10 million American jobs were lost.
Time magazine, reflecting on the unraveling economy, considered the Airborne acquisition the seventh worst business deal in America. In other parts of the world, DHL is a leader in shipping. But in the U.S., it couldn’t crack the dominance of UPS and FedEx.
You didn’t hear the rest of the story in the ad.
Video production, relatively speaking, is cheap. What costs money is television air time — and the years of data collection on every U.S. voter to know when and how they are vulnerable.
Since 2010, i360, a data company funded by Freedom Partners, has stretched the influential power of political ads by gathering and digitizing the habits of up to 250 million American voters.
The DHL video featuring Botts cost $1.8 million to air across Ohio in the week of Ohio’s March 15 primary. For special targeting of the most vulnerable voters, i360 allocated $280,443 for online deployment and $1.6 million for cable TV.
The four major networks in Cleveland sold $90,000 in ad time to play the 30-second spot more than 100 times that week, FEC records show. Another firm, Target Enterprises of California, appears to have collected a commission to broker the sales. Prime time slots went for more than $2,000 per minute.
In all that, the rest of Botts’ story was never told.