The LEAA and its current leader, Chief Operating Officer Ted Deeds, did not respond to repeated calls and emails. Lawyers representing the group said they were not authorized to speak on its behalf, and the LEAA’s accountant referred questions back to the group. In the past, its leaders have argued that its anonymously funded activities are protected under the right to free speech.
The group is an extreme example of a growing cadre of political organizations — from the conservative Crossroads GPS to the environmental advocate League of Conservation Voters — that insert themselves into elections, flood the airwaves with attack ads and often tip the scales in favor of the candidate they prefer. All the while, voters have no idea who is behind the effort and what their motives are because of a gap in disclosure laws.
The LEAA is among the most mysterious and successful, coming into races like a stealth assassin, then all but disappearing when the race ends.
In the LEAA’s sights
Two weeks before last year’s Arkansas Supreme Court election, the LEAA swooped in to take out a trial attorney it didn’t like.
“Tim Cullen worked to throw out the sentence of a repeat sexual predator, arguing that child pornography was a victimless crime,” said the voiceover in one ad. “Victimless? Tell that to the thousands of victims robbed of their childhoods and left with permanent psychological and physical scars.”
Cullen responded, saying the ad misrepresented his argument.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center's Factcheck.org, which monitors the truthfulness of political messages, mostly agreed, calling the LEAA’s ad “beyond the pale.”
The group spent at least $320,000 airing the attack ads, as well as some supporting Cullen’s opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Robin Wynne, according to local TV station records. It was the first time a group unconnected to candidates or political parties bought ads in an Arkansas court race.
Wynne, who denied any involvement with the ads, won by a 4-percentage-point margin.
The ads not only contributed to Cullen’s loss, they also led him to give up politics, even though his supporters want him to run again.
“Because I still do not know their motives or the source of their funding, I am concerned that they (or whoever is behind them) might again hijack any future race if I was a candidate,” Cullen said in an email.
A bill that would have required groups like the LEAA to reveal their donors failed in the Arkansas House this week, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
The Arkansas race was simply the latest in a string of judicial elections in which the LEAA helped determine the winners.
Two years before, the group spent at least $450,000 airing ads that criticized losing Mississippi Supreme Court candidate Flip Phillips. And in 2010, the LEAA spent $800,000 airing ads that attacked Michigan Judge Denise Langford Morris, who subsequently lost her campaign for state supreme court, according to Justice at Stake, an advocacy group critical of judicial elections.
In the Diaz case, Mississippi’s Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention condemned the ads, causing Comcast to pull them from its stations, according to Mississippi’s The Clarion-Ledger. Still, he lost by 16 percentage points, despite the $100,000 he estimated his campaign spent fighting back.
The group also jumped into races for at least two more supreme court justices, seven attorneys general, two state legislators, plus four congressional races. Each time, the LEAA made a name for itself with harsh attack ads, and almost every time, its candidate won.