It’s not every day you see candidates for Congress voluntarily coming to a primary opponent’s defense during this gritty election season. But that’s what seems to be happening in the rough and tumble race for the 9th District congressional seat.
Sparks have been flying between incumbent Doug Collins and former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun since the latter moved to Habersham County to challenge the two-term Gainesville Republican from the right. Now Mike Scupin and Bernie Fontaine, two of the three other Republicans also running in the primary, are alleging that Collins and his campaign knowingly violated federal regulations that require campaign-related communications to be labeled as such in conjunction with a series of articles about Broun that appeared on the website zpolitics.
Scupin and Fontaine this week penned a joint letter of complaint to the Federal Election Commission that claims zpolitics is owned by Jay Williams, the founder and managing principal of the campaign consulting firm The Stoneridge Group, and points to the site’s registry with the domain host GoDaddy as proof. Stoneridge has worked with Collins in the past and will be handling direct mail for the incumbent’s campaign this cycle.
The pair then highlighted three recent articles zpolitics ran about Broun they said were disparaging to the candidate and reported information that only Collins himself knew and would have only been made public with his authority, such as a private phone call between Broun and Collins.
Here’s a taste of one of the stories they highlighted:
“Confirming rumors that have been swirling around in the media, several political insiders are telling zpolitics that former Athens-area U.S. Representative Paul Broun will, in fact, mount a campaign against Gainesville Congressman Doug Collins.
Sources say that Broun recently called Rep. Collins to confirm his intent to run, and that he could make an announcement as early as this weekend. At the very least, Broun isn’t denying the rumors. When the AJC asked the former Congressman whether the whispers are true, the only response they received was, “Stay tuned.”
If you’ve followed Broun’s political career, there’s a decent chance that you’re not surprised. Not only has Broun run for office more than a dozen times in the past 25 years, but he’s also winked at running for a new political office again ever since his failed bid for U.S. Senate ended in 2014. Since then, he’s made conspicuous efforts to stay in the political spotlight.”
They said the information published could create an advantage for Collins over Broun, Scupin and Fontaine. The pair called for the FEC to investigate and also raised the possibility that the situation is in violation of House ethics rules.
“Because the Collins campaign makes payments to Jason Williams through a media entity Williams owns, and because in-turn Williams posts news and commentary accruing to the favor of Collins Campaign, while disparaging Collins’ opponent on another media entity he owns, but without campaign disclaimers, we view this ongoing, purposeful process as nothing less than information laundering, an attempt to deceive the public, posturing partisan campaign materials as independent news and commentary,” Scupin and Fontaine’s letter states.
Chip Lake, a consultant working with the Collins campaign, said the complaint “is baseless and has no merit in fact.”
“This is nothing more than two of our opponents trying to generate much needed coverage for their struggling campaigns six weeks out from an election,” Lake said.
A January filing with the office of Georgia’s Secretary of State indicates management of the company was transferred from Stoneridge’s Janie Star to zpolitics’ Editor-in-Chief Christy Riggins.
Riggins said in an interview that she owns zpolitics LLC and all of the assets under its umbrella, including zpolitics.com.
Riggins, who said she has been operating the site since last year, said Stoneridge provides graphic design and technical support for the website but that it has no editorial control over what is published.
“I have full editorial control. No one instructs or directs me, just like any other news site,” said Riggins, who previously did communications work for the Georgia House Republican Caucus. She said she has never met or worked with Collins or his campaign in any capacity.
“Regarding the silly allegations, I would encourage Mr. Scupin or anyone else interested in the stories I’ve written about Paul Broun to weigh them against the facts that have been reported in virtually every other news source that has covered the race for the Ninth Congressional District,” Riggins said.
Williams said Stoneridge hosts the zpolitics site “like we do hundreds of other websites” and underscored it does not authorize any content or posts on the site.
“Accordingly, I think Christy Riggins has worked really hard to create a good product for her readers. Her work speaks for itself,” he said in an email. “If Paul Broun is upset with stories about a grand jury investigation, maybe he shouldn’t have used taxpayer money for his campaign.”
Scupin Campaign Manager Hank Sullivan said the letter is “not about defending Paul Broun” and is instead “defending truth and justice and preserving our country.”
“We’re not defending anyone, just reporting. Paul Broun just happened to be the subject of Rep. Collins fake news articles. We would turn the culprits in regardless who the subject might be. The truth needs to be known regardless who benefits,” Sullivan said in an email.
The Broun campaign had no comment on the letter.
Zpolitics was started by former WSB host Martha Zoller after her unsuccessful 2012 Republican congressional campaign against Collins, but she handed editorial responsibilities to Riggins last year as she moved to work for U.S. Sen. David Perdue. (WSB and the AJC share the same parent company.)
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a document posted on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. The article has updated to reflect that change and provide clarifying information on ownership of zpolitics.