- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Republican candidate for the Virginia Senate has ties to a group with a trail of accusations that it sent unsolicited and anonymous text messages at the eleventh hour of political campaigns — messages similar to those Virginia Democrats say they have intercepted in recent days and suspect are illegal.

Democrats say one of the texts calls on Northern Virginia voters to send the Obama administration a message against higher taxes by not voting for Democrats in statewide elections on Nov. 8.

The party also has complained about a text that specifically targets first-term Sen. David W. Marsden, who is embroiled in a competitive race with Republican Jason A. Flanary. The messages do not identify a person or a group as the sender.

“Clearly, I think it can be assumed here that it’s coming from either the party or my opponent,” Mr. Marsden said. “It’s just wrong on so many levels to do this to people.”

Asked whether they were responsible for the messages, the Republican Party of Virginia vehemently denied involvement.

“We don’t know anything about it. It’s not us,” spokesman Garren Shipley said. “No, no, not us — no, no, no, no.”

The Marsden campaign said it has been contacted more than 80 times as a result of the messages, which refer to a vote that the Fairfax Democrat cast this year in the General Assembly against a bill that would have required parents to be notified when their child faces certain disciplinary proceedings. Mr. Marsden has said the bill was well-intentioned but vaguely drafted.

Asked about the messages, Mr. Flanary was unspecific.

“What should be illegal is Dave Marsden telling Fairfax schools they don’t have to tell parents when they discipline their children,” he said in an email.

Mr. Flanary, formerly vice president of government relations for the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, is now the chief operating officer of ccAdvertising.

The Centreville-based firm, which conducts automated political and public opinion telephone polls, has provided more than $17,000 in in-kind services for the Flanary campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

In an April 2010 letter to the Federal Election Commission, Mr. Flanary also identified himself as executive director of the Americans in Contact political action committee (AICPAC). The PAC, which says on its website that it identifies fiscal and social conservatives, has contributed $5,000 to Mr. Flanary’s campaign.

It also has been linked to similar unsolicited texting in other states.

The North Carolina Democratic Party accused AICPAC of sending unsolicited text messages to voters in the districts of Reps. Heath Shuler and Larry Kissell prior to the 2010 midterm elections. Both Democrats won re-election.

Politico reported that AICPAC used text messages in 2010 to target Rep. Deborah L. Halvorson, Illinois Democrat, who was unseated by Republican Adam Kinzinger.

The campaign of Pennsylvania Democratic candidate Manan Trivedi accused AICPAC of sending unsolicited text messages in 2010. Mr. Trivedi was defeated by Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach.

Asked whether ccAdvertising had any involvement in sending the messages, company President Gabriel S. Joseph III — also listed in FEC records as AICPAC’s treasurer — said the firm has never engaged in anything that runs afoul of the law.

“Everything that ccAdvertising does is legal, per the law of Virginia and the laws of the land,” he said.

Federal and Virginia laws appear to have loopholes for political text messages.

The Federal Communications Commission’s anti-spam rules that ban unwanted emails sent to wireless devices do not apply to noncommercial messages, such as those of candidates running for public office.

Within Virginia, political text messages do not violate the Virginia Telephone Privacy Protection Act or Virginia’s Dialing-Announcing Devices statute, said Caroline Gibson, deputy director of communications for Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican.

David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, disagrees. He wrote in an email that the party “has every reason to believe these text messages are illegal, and we are doing everything we can to determine where they are coming from.”

Scott Goodstein, founder of the progressive consulting firm Revolution Messaging LLC and former external online director for Obama for America, said spam text messages are rarely used by political campaigns because, unlike email spam, they could cost the recipient money.

“Even the worst industry offenders — those who send you bad email spam — don’t even mess around with cellphones,” he said.