When Richard DeVos, the Michigan billionaire who founded Amway and is a generous contributor to Republican causes, gives $150,000 to the Republican National Lawyers Association just a few weeks before the midterm elections, it makes you sit up and take notice. In the realm of political giving, $150,000 isn’t that much money, but the RNLA doesn’t buy TV ads, it has barely a handful of full-time staffers, and its overall budget is relatively modest. So what does the RNLA do and what did DeVos figure he’d be supporting with that money?
The RNLA is the leading independent entity on the right devoted to preparing Republican attorneys for election day and post-election lawyering. But it’s also part of the right wing’s bogus voter fraud noise machine, whipping up hysteria over the idea that elections are being stolen because of alleged but unproven monkeying with minority votes. For instance, last year RNLA paid a DC lawyer named Chris Berg tens of thousands of dollars for “research and investigation” and launched a program called “ACORN Watch.” Berg, who did a series of blog posts for the RNLA blog on ACORN, also posts on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website, whose doctored footage of the ACORN sting launched the “scandal.”
One of the speakers at RNLA events is J. Christian Adams, the apparatchik from the Bush Justice Department who has tried to turn the Obama Justice Department’s handling of voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panthers into a cause celebre among conservatives, with some success. (Ever resourceful, the RNLA has used the Black Panthers case as a fund-raising tool.) Another Bush-era voting fraud huckster, Hans von Spakovsky, was scheduled to appear last week at an RNLA panel in DC. [Late Update: Von Spakovsky emails to say that the panel is actually scheduled for next month, not last week, as the Facebook listing says, and that he was not invited to speak by the RNLA but by the Federalist Society, which is co-sponsoring the event.]
But here’s where the RNLA’s activity gets interesting and what may make the timing of DeVos’ $150,000 notable. As Ryan Reilly has been reporting for us at TPMmuckraker, the RNLA is currently in the midst of conducting what it bills as an “unprecedented” series of election law training seminars in the run up to the midterms elections. The seminars have been held or scheduled in several states, including Illinois, Nevada, Florida, Washington, California and New York.
The public gloss the RNLA puts on its seminars is that they’re for professional training. In fact, the group offers continuing legal education credits to lawyers who pay to attend them. But according to a blog post by one of the lecturers at its recent Florida seminar, only Republicans are allowed to attend. “Please note that due to the RNLA’s sponsorship of this event, that attendance is limited to Republicans,” Sarah Rumpf, a Florida attorney wrote on her blog. “If you are not already a member of the RNLA or are not otherwise already known by the [Republican Party of Florida], you will need a reference in order to attend this seminar.”
The seminar speakers seem to have a decidedly political bent as well. The recent Florida seminar featured appearances by Rick Scott, the Republican nominee for governor, and Pam Bondi, the party’s nominee of attorney general. An upcoming seminar in Seattle features the executive director and the general counsel of the state Republican Party. While the seminars offer CLE credit, they apparently aren’t limited to lawyers. The sign-up sheet on the RNLA website for tonight’s seminar in Chicago, for instance, includes a check-the-box for whether you are a lawyer, a law student, or “No, I am just a concerned citizen.” How many nonpartisan concerned citizens attend CLEs on election law in their free time?
Taken together, the overtly political seminars look less like professional training courses and more like strategic preparation for the midterms. The group’s president was somewhat frank about it recently. “These election education efforts aid the recruitment of volunteer lawyers to assist the more than twenty governorships, ten U.S. Senate seats and seventy U.S. House seats that are up for grabs in November,” said Charles Bell, Jr., the longtime general counsel for the California Republican Party and a top GOP election lawyer.
But there’s more.
Tonight’s seminar in Chicago is one of several RNLA seminars in Illinois in the weeks before the election. They come at the same time that the GOP nominee for Senate from Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk, was caught on tape on a GOP conference call touting the “voter integrity” squads his campaign will use to target minority precincts around the state. The effort is being organized in part by the Illinois Republican Party (which uses the term “ballot integrity” program.) Targeting black neighborhoods with teams of Republican lawyers and observers evokes the sort of intimidation of African American voters that has a long and dark history. The Justice Department is monitoring the situation in Illinois, TPM has learned.
But the RNLA strongly denies any involvement in the Kirk effort, or at least seems to. In an email, RNLA executive director Micheal Thielen tells TPM: “Please note RNLA does not perform ANY operations. We merely train lawyers on how to ensure elections are open, fair and honest. Our training program in Illinois has been approved by the Illinois state bar for Illinois Mandatory Continuing Legal Education credit.”
The RNLA seems particularly sensitive to the charge of voter suppression. It includes a disclaimer for its seminars, noting that the “utmost care is taken to provide instruction that stresses the protection of the constitutional right to vote and avoids any activity that would limit or discourage the right of anyone to cast a legal vote, including racial minorities.”
That’s a rich disclaimer considering how aggressively RNLA has gone after ACORN and how frequently it has played the voter fraud card. It also flies in the face of the RNLA’s past practices. Back in 2002, according to news articles from the time, the RNLA was running “ballot integrity programs in select locations around the country” in “targeted districts and areas where voter fraud is a concern or has historically been a problem.” In other words, the RNLA was targeting black neighborhoods.
Where does the RNLA fit into the GOP constellation? It’s no fringe outfit. In addition to counting top Republican lawyers among its membership, the group is courted by GOP bigwigs like Ed Gillespie, Ed Meese, Michael Steele, John Ashcroft, John Bolton, and the national Republican campaign committees. The RNLA’s co-chair is Cleta Mitchell, a DC lawyer with an election law practice whose clients this cycle include GOP Senate nominees Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
The RNLA, with a history of running “ballot integrity” programs, is conducting election law seminars across Illinois at the same that Mark Kirk is touting his campaign’s “voter integrity” program. It’s on the ground in several other states at the same time. And all of this comes just a few weeks after Richard DeVos gave $150,000 to the RNLA. Make of it what you will.
Correction: J. Christian Adams is not on the RNLA panel in DC with Hans von Spakovsky as this post originally stated.
David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.