Democrats file U.S. complaint over GOP websites

Posted: February 12, 2014

TRENTONA South Jersey Democratic organization has filed a federal complaint against a Republican campaign group working to reelect U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, saying it had co-opted his Democratic challenger's name on a "deceptive" website to solicit donations.

Republicans countered Monday by attacking the challenger, Democrat Bill Hughes Jr., for his association with retiring U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.).

The website complaint, brought by Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Jim Schroeder, asks the Federal Election Commission to investigate "fraudulent" activity by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). It also names LoBiondo and his campaign as respondents.

It says the NRCC snatched up 15 domain names - all variations of "Bill Hughes Jr. for Congress," referring to the Democrat challenging LoBiondo in the Second District - that redirect to a website that accuses Hughes of "helping New Jersey's most corrupt criminals since 2002."

The Second District includes all or parts of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties and parts of Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties.

Hughes, a former federal prosecutor, is a white-collar defense attorney in the Atlantic City office of Cooper Levenson. One client was Andrews, whom he helped represent during an ethics investigation involving the congressman's use of campaign funds.

"Need to get out of jail?" says the website billhughesjrforcongress.com at the top of the page. "Better call Bill!"

The page also features two buttons users can click to donate to the NRCC. A note at the bottom of the page says it was paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee and "not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee."

The complaint alleges that the NRCC violated federal election law by using Hughes' name without demonstrating clear opposition or obtaining his authorization. The website, it says, appears to ask Hughes' supporters to donate unwittingly to the NRCC.

"This is nothing more than a Mickey Mouse complaint filed on behalf of a Mickey Mouse candidate like Bill Hughes Jr.," NRCC spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement Monday. "The fact is that this website gives people information about Hughes Jr. that he is apparently unwilling to put up on his own website - specifically, that he spent his career standing up for some of New Jersey's most corrupt criminals and putting them back on the streets.

"No one can spend more than two seconds on this site," Prior said, "without realizing that this is not a site that is pro-Bill Hughes Jr."

Jason Galanes, a spokesman for the LoBiondo campaign, referred comment on the complaint to the NRCC, but said: "Frank LoBiondo is always proud to talk about his record of working for South Jersey. We think every candidate ought to stand behind their record and not hide it."

Hughes called the NRCC's strategy "ridiculous" and "juvenile."

"They would rather cast aspersions on me for doing my job than talk about high unemployment" and other issues facing South Jersey, he said.

Hughes is not the only target of the Republican group's domain-name strategy. Other Democrats include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Mike Parrish of Chester County, who is seeking to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.).

Republicans did not appear fazed by the complaint, instead stepping up their attacks on Hughes.

Andrews, the South Jersey congressman who is resigning next week to take a job with a Philadelphia law firm, hired Hughes as part of his team responding to a House ethics committee investigation, Andrews' office confirmed Monday.

Hughes said he could not comment on specific clients.

"I am proud of the work that Cooper Levenson has performed on behalf of countless families and small and medium-size business throughout New Jersey. The firm does truly exceptional work," Hughes said.

Republican critics, he said, "want to ignore the fact that I was a federal prosecutor and an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice for over seven years and the work that I had done in fighting crime and on behalf of people of Southern New Jersey."

Andrews' campaign paid $21,777 to Cooper Levenson in 2013, campaign filings show. Andrews' campaign also donated $2,500 to Hughes' campaign.

"It's not the least bit surprising that Bill Hughes Jr. would be the lawyer for a congressman who is resigning in the midst of a pending ethics investigation," said Prior, the NRCC spokesman. "Hughes Jr. has made quite a bit of money representing a laundry list of unsavory clients."

Andrews has said the ethics inquiry - which stems from a 2011 trip he took to Scotland using campaign funds - played no role in his decision to leave Congress.

Hughes noted that LoBiondo praised Andrews on the day the congressman announced his resignation.

"I've enjoyed serving with Congressman Andrews," LoBiondo said in a news release last week. "I've always found Rob to be a willing partner and tireless legislator. . . . His absence from Congress as an advocate for New Jersey's interests will truly be felt."

Hughes said: "Everybody has a right to an attorney, even senior staff members of the NRCC."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman

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