John McCain's campaign asked a prominent Republican consultant, Craig Shirley, to leave his official campaign role Thursday after a Politico inquiry about Shirley's dual role consulting for the campaign and for an independent 527 group opposing the Democratic presidential candidates. The campaign also released a new conflict-of-interest policy barring such arrangements.
Shirley, a conservative public relations veteran, doubled as a consultant to McCain and to Stop Her Now, a 527 group barred from coordinating its activities with presidential campaigns. He is not currently on the McCain campaign’s payroll but will also step down from his role on McCain’s Virginia Leadership Team said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
"If you're working for a 527 involved in the presidential race, you won't have a named role in our campaign,” said Rogers.
Under the new policy, a copy of which was provided to Politico, “no person with a McCain campaign title or position may participate in a 527 or other independent entity that makes public communications that support or oppose any presidential candidate.”
Shirley’s firm, Shirley & Bannister Associates, was paid more than $22,000 by McCain for work this February and March to win conservative support. Stop Her Now has paid the firm more than $155,000 since 2007 for public relations work.
Shirley said Stop Her Now wasn’t the sort of group airing hard-hitting, factually questionable attack ads that have given 527s a bad name, but rather a “lighthearted” effort.
“This is not the nether regions of 527s,” he said.
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But his background is in some of the hardest-hitting Republican attacks on Democratic presidents and presidential hopefuls.
He was reportedly a member of the team that tarred Michael Dukakis with the “Willie Horton” ads in 1988. In 2004, his company did public relations work for the movie "Stolen Honor," which attacked John F. Kerry for undermining the treatment of Vietnam Veterans.
In a recent editorial, Stop Her Now’s main backer, Richard Collins, explained his recent move to change his group’s name to “Stop Him Now” and devote it to attacking Barack Obama. Collins attacked Obama’s “full-throated liberalism” and his ties to the “corrupt politics of Chicago.”
“Obama’s style may be different, but his radical agenda is just as dangerous” as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, Collins wrote.
Shirley’s firm registered the domain name stop-him-now.com in March; it redirects browsers to the Stop Her Now site.
The website ran animated parodies of Clinton and now runs parodies of Obama, recently imagining a visit by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the Obama White House. Shirley’s work was to promote the website and spread the word about its other promotional activities, including airplanes trailing “Stop Her Now” banners over Democratic presidential debates.
One recent anti-Obama cartoon features an Oval Office exchange between President Obama and Wright, whom Obama summons as his “spiritual adviser.”
“How may I serve you my brother?” asks the animated Wright.
“Is love black and white?” asks the fictional Obama.
“No — it is black,” shrieks Wright.
“Really?” asks Obama.
“Goddamn right,” the minister replies.
"That's what I'd thought you'd say," says a reassured Obama.
Campaign finance experts expressed surprise that a McCain consultant would moonlight for a 527, a dual role that could trigger inquiries from the Federal Elections Commission.
“It doesn’t mean conclusively that the activity was coordinated, but it rases a facial issue regarding coordination,” said Kenneth Gross, a campaign finance lawyer at Skadden, Arps. “It’s certainly possibly that things fly under the radar screen, and I don’t want to be too harsh, but it’s certainly something the campaign should be on the lookout for.
Rogers said the campaign had not been aware of Shirley’s role.
Both Shirley and the campaign denied the 527 and the campaign had coordinated activities, and there’s no evidence that they did.
“When you involve the same people, there’s at least the risk that coordination will be found,” said Rick Hasen, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election law issues. “The question is why a campaign would want to run that risk — especially a campaign like McCain’s or Obama’s that tries to put itself out there as supporting campaign finance reform and opposing 527s.”
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis moved to avoid a recurrence of the situation with his conflict-of-interest policy, released late yesterday. It also sought to stem the impression that McCain’s campaign is run by lobbyists — a characterization Democrats have tried to make since it was reported that a senior adviser, Charlie Black, made lobbying calls from McCain’s signature bus, the Straight Talk Express. Davis himself is currently on leave from his lobbying and consulting firm, and the campaign removed two other officials this week for work they’d done on behalf of Burmese junta.
Davis’ directive has five points:
— McCain aides may not be registered lobbyists or foreign agents, or make money from those practices.
— Volunteers must disclose their status as lobbyists or foreign agents, and may not participate in making policy on the areas they lobby, or lobby McCain or his staff.
— "No person with a McCain Campaign title or position may participate in a 527 or other independent entity that makes public communications that support or oppose any presidential candidate.”
— No McCain campaign vendor may work with a 527 or independent group without a pre-approved legal “firewall.”
— As McCain has said before, “anyone serving in a McCain administration must commit not to lobby the administration during his presidency.”
The memo establishes a new vetting process, requiring campaign aides to fill out a questionnaire on their status and to provide proof to the campaign legal department that they’ve terminated outside contracts.