Democrat Andy Beshear and Republican Whitney Westerfield are the men publicly running to be Kentucky's next attorney general. But behind the scenes, scores of corporations, wealthy businessmen, lawyers, lobbyists and labor unions have given several million dollars to two independent groups loosely affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties, which are spending that money on a barrage of attack ads meant to influence voters.
Many donors hedge their bets, not knowing who will win. Among those giving heavily to independent groups on both sides of the attorney general's race — simultaneously underwriting attacks on Beshear and Westerfield — are 21st Century Fox, the American Gaming Association, Golden Living nursing homes, Duke Energy, distiller Brown-Forman, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the American Petroleum Institute, eBay, the American Beverage Association, discount cigarette maker XCaliber International, brewer Anheuser Busch and Monster Energy caffeine drinks.
The deep-pocketed donors, mostly from outside Kentucky, have an interest in not getting sued or prosecuted by attorneys general representing the 50 states. This fall, they can focus their efforts on the three states choosing a top lawyer in this off-year election: Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Golden Living, for instance, based in Plano, Texas, gave $25,000 each this year to both of the independent groups involved in Kentucky's attorney general's race. The company is no stranger to statehouse legal problems. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is targeting its nursing homes in her state for allegedly failing to provide basic services to elderly residents, a charge the company denies. In 2013, the company agreed to pay $613,300 to settle claims of "inadequate and worthless wound care services to residents" brought by the state of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Golden Living fraudulently billed Medicaid for nursing services which were substandard and, tragically, resulted in harm to patients," Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said at that time.
Money flows from these contributors to two national groups, neither of which is allowed by law to coordinate with its favored candidate.
The Republican Attorneys General Association is running ads that say Beshear would do the bidding of his "special-interest" campaign donors and Democratic President Barack Obama, who is hugely unpopular in Kentucky. The Bluegrass Alliance for Consumer Rights — largely funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association — is airing a commercial that shows a man in a bathrobe, supposedly Westerfield, enjoying a pedicure and a facial at a spa instead of doing his duty prosecuting criminals.
Beshear and Westerfield have complained about the accuracy of attacks made by the independent groups, while each insists he has no control over the independent group assailing his opponent.
The Democratic group said it bought $630,000 of television air time on Oct. 5. The Republican group reported spending $2.2 million in Kentucky as of Oct. 2. More money could come in the campaign's final weeks.
Most of the donors give $10,000 to $50,000 per contribution, with some giving multiple times. In exchange, donors get to meet the state attorneys general and their top legal aides at private conferences organized by the independent groups throughout the year.
Last June, for example, the Republican Attorneys General Association hosted its summer meeting at a luxury oceanfront resort in San Diego, according to conference documents available online. Eighteen attorneys general and seven candidates for attorney general spent the weekend golfing, dining, holding campaign fund-raisers and attending business-friendly panel discussions. They were joined by hundreds of executives from banks, payday lenders, tobacco companies, health insurers and technology firms, among many others who paid the RAGA for the access.
For $10,000, "gold sponsor" donors were promised admission to "the private appreciation dinner" with attorneys general at last year's three national RAGA meetings. For $50,000, donors got that same deal, plus admission to even more intimate "host committee dinners" at national meetings, and an "annual opportunity to lead private briefings with Republican attorneys general."
The two attorneys general groups did not return calls last week seeking comment on their Kentucky efforts.
Several U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 2010 allow donors, including corporations and unions, to make unlimited payments to such independent groups. Much of this can be passed along anonymously as "dark money" by organizations that can conceal who funds them. For instance, the conservative group Judicial Crisis Network gave $100,000 on June 1 to the RAGA; because of the way it's organized, it does not have to explain its funding.
"We're seeing these outside groups getting involved more and more in state races, even in down-ticket state races and state legislative races," said Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"It's particularly bad with an attorney general's race, because then you've got these conflict-of-interest concerns given the very nature of what an attorney general does," Libowitz said. "He's supposed to be the attorney for the people. But these same corporations who get to do back-door lobbying with the attorney general with big campaign donations often have business before the attorney general's office."