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Josh Mandel Helped By Mystery Group In Ohio Senate Race Against Sherrod Brown

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Josh Mandel is getting a little help from his mystery friends as he tries to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Josh Mandel is getting a little help from his mystery friends as he tries to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown.

A mysterious non-profit has spent $238,000 on television ads promoting Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel in his race against Sen. Sherrod Brown -- and its lawyer told HuffPost it may never reveal its donors.

The sums the group has spent to boost Mandel are peanuts compared to what other outside groups are dumping into Ohio to unseat Brown, one of the Senate's most progressive Democrats. But they are yet the latest reminder that anonymous forces are increasingly able to shape campaigns in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

The pro-Mandel advertisements started running on May 14 and only stopped several days ago, according to the Brown campaign. The group behind them, the Government Integrity Fund, is a 501(c)4 non-profit that was created in Ohio in May 2011. The only name connected with its incorporation papers there, or with an affiliated super PAC in Federal Election Commission reports, is that of William Todd, a Columbus-area lawyer who served as the lead litigation counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio in 2004 and the Ohio chair of Lawyers for McCain in 2008.

Despite his GOP connections, however, Todd said he's just the group's lawyer. When asked who was funding the group, he responded, "that I can't tell you. That's attorney-client [privilege]."

When HuffPost called him on Monday, Todd said "I'll tell you who, if anyone, other than me is available to talk." By Tuesday, the group's funders or board members -- whoever they are -- were still not available. Todd had no idea if they ever would be. But he said voters shouldn't worry about that.

"The question of anonymity in political advertising is one that is clearly an area protected by the First Amendment and always has been," he said. "So no, I'm not troubled by that."

"It's all about the message. It's not necessarily about who's paying for it," he said. "It's the truth of the message."

At least in the case of its first ad buy, which a Brown campaign tracker said cost the group $238,000 to run in the Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton media markets, the message is rather straightforward. Although Mandel refers to "this campaign" in a video clip where he is seen standing in front of a lectern, the ad does not explicitly ask viewers to vote for him or against Brown. Instead, it mostly focuses on Mandel's military service.

To run a similar advertisement in the last 60 days of the campaign, the Government Integrity Fund would need to transfer funds to the Government Integrity Fund Action Network, its affiliated super PAC, due to campaign finance rules. Even then, however, it would not need to make additional disclosures of its funders.

"The super PAC is designed to support primarily conservative candidates in the fall cycle, and it is not funded yet," said Todd. "So there are folks who are out trying to raise money for it, and beyond that, I don't know what their plans are."

Third-party groups have thus far poured millions of dollars into the Brown-Mandel race, which is shaping up to be one of the nation's most competitive Senate contests. Mandel's mostly corporate allies have spent $7.1 million, while labor and the Democratic-supporting Majority PAC have mustered about $1.2 million.

Brown told HuffPost's Amanda Terkel on Saturday that the outside spending against him was "corrosive."

The outside money has helped Mandel chip away at Brown's polling advantage. While Brown was ahead by around 10 percentage points in March, that lead had fallen to just 5 percent Tuesday.

"The Government Integrity Fund is currently in fifth place in terms of spending against us, so when you look at it that way, it's one of the smaller buys against us," said Brown campaign spokesman Justin Barasky.

But he was still frustrated by not knowing who was putting up the ads, and argued the group's name was ironic given Mandel's shaky record on attending the meetings of state boards of which he is a member.

"This could be four of Karl Rove's best friends in Houston, Texas deciding to dump money into an ad," Barasky said. "I guess they could care less about integrity in government [or] they wouldn't be spending on Mandel, who has a government job and never shows up for work."

The Mandel campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. For more information on the Government Integrity Fund, don't bother visiting its website. As of Tuesday, it was down.

Know anything about the Government Integrity Fund? Contact the author of this piece, Matt Sledge, at msledge@huffingtonpost.com

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