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Dark-money groups targeting GOP lawmakers tied to Dem lawyer

RALEIGH (AP) A North Carolina television station has tracked down who’s responsible for a series of ads by dark-money groups attacking state Republicans online and on TV.

WRAL reports that the advocacy groups have ties to Michael Weisel, a Democratic elections lawyer prominent on the political left in the state.

The groups, named Fair Courts NC, NC Common Ground and Aim Higher Now, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads, Facebook ads and mailers, and by law, they don’t have to reveal their donors.

Both Republicans and Democrats use these so-called dark-money groups. During U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s 2016 re-election race against a spirited Democratic challenger, he benefited from more than $10 million in television ads paid for by a super PAC with hidden donors and ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as the PAC’s nonprofit arm.

“All sides play the game,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “The world we live in these days.”

Federal tax laws allow these and similar groups to keep their funding secret because they’re treated as social welfare organizations that engage in politics as a secondary activity.

The Fair Courts group has been funding Facebook ads for months, targeting Republican North Carolina legislators over judicial changes pushed by the GOP majority in Raleigh. NC Common Ground is behind Facebook ads targeting state legislators on environmental issues. The group’s ads also went on television recently in the Greensboro area against a trio of Republican legislators.

These two groups, and a third one called Aim Higher Now, all track back to North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, a nonprofit that dates to at least 2011. It is run at least in part by Weisel. The group filed paperwork in May to create assumed names for its campaigns.

Weisel declined to comment, beyond saying that the groups are in compliance with the law.

One of the few public documents available that describes NC Citizens is its 2015 tax form. Its president was then listed as J. Andy Penry, a Raleigh attorney and a six-figure donor to left-leaning causes in North Carolina. Gov. Roy Cooper this year appointed Penry to the state elections board, which he now chairs.

Penry told WRAL he’s no longer involved with NC Citizens.

Jessica Laurenz was also listed as a NC Citizens board director in 2015. In 2013, she acknowledged authorship of a leaked memo that described a political strategy to weaken then-Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP majority in the General Assembly.

Laurenz declined to comment on NC Citizens or its associated groups, referring questions to Weisel.

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