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Published October 26 2012

Super PAC bombards Fargo, Grand Forks with illegally placed Senate signs

FARGO – U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp on Friday called on her Republican opponent to condemn the tactics being used by third-party groups supporting him, including a slew of yard signs illegally placed on boulevards in Fargo and Grand Forks early Friday.

“All of this activity has to end. There has to be some modicum of respect for North Dakota’s political traditions and North Dakota’s laws,” Heitkamp, a former attorney general, said in a conference call with reporters.

Berg’s campaign said in a statement it urges those on both sides of the partisan divide to follow the law.

City workers in Fargo were dispatched Friday morning to remove the yard signs that were placed illegally on public boulevards in an apparent campaign attack on Heitkamp, whose race against freshman U.S. Rep. Rick Berg has attracted national interests because it could tip the balance of power in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The signs, paid for by the political action committee It’s Now or Never Inc., showed up along Broadway and University Drive and elsewhere in the city, mostly in north Fargo. They were generally grouped in threes, one red-and-white Obama-Heitkamp sign between two blue-and-white Romney-Berg signs.

Republicans have tried to paint Heitkamp as a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama in a state where a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the majority since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

According to its website, It’s Now or Never PAC’s executive director, Jason S.M. Smith, served as national deputy political director for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign during the 2012 primary election.

Based in Kansas City, Mo., the super PAC bought on Oct. 15 $2,659 worth of anti-Heitkamp signs and $5,299 in pro-Berg signs, according to federal election filings opensecrets.org maintains in a database.

In a statement Friday, a different super PAC with a similar name, Now or Never, announced an initial buy of $640,000 in TV airtime for ads opposing Heitkamp, which it says “indicates the confidence national Republicans have in picking up this open U.S. Senate seat.” On Thursday, it bought $187,000 in anti-Heitkamp TV ads, according to opensecrets.org.

Heitkamp campaign spokesman Brandon Lorenz said Berg “should call on his allies to reimburse the city for having to remove these illegal signs.”

Berg campaign spokes-man Chris Van Guilder said in an emailed statement that the campaign has “no connection or coordination” with It’s Now or Never or any other third-party independent group. He said the campaign has received thousands of requests for lawn signs in support of Berg.

“Our campaign complies with city ordinances and we ask all others – on both sides of the political debate – to do the same,” he said.

‘Waste of our time’

Chris Rose, a plan reviewer in the Inspections Department, said Friday that more than 30 calls about the signs had been received by inspections, the Street Department, police and the mayor’s office.

City ordinance prohibits placing signs on boulevards, which are city-owned rights of way. Rose said those who placed the signs likely won’t face a fine unless they do it again.

“It’s a waste of our time,” she said. “And I’m sure the taxpayers don’t want us out there pulling the signs, wasting their money, either.”

Noting the high-profile nature of the Senate race, Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel said police have received a higher-than-normal volume of calls about the signs, including some tips as to who could’ve been involved. Vettel said by late Friday afternoon all tips had been followed up on and no suspects were identified.

About 80 of the signs peppered street corners along Broadway from downtown to 32nd Avenue North.

Brent Wien, who lives at Broadway and 17th Avenue North, said he was surprised when he opened his window blinds at about 6:15 a.m. and saw the signs in front of his house.

Wien, 48, a self-employed painter, said his political leanings are nobody’s business and he didn’t want the signs in his yard.

“You kind of feel a little violated because it’s in my front yard and they’re putting them there,” he said. “If I want signs up, I’ll put them up myself.”

Wien said he didn’t know at first if he could remove the signs, but then he heard on the radio that it was OK. By 9:30 a.m., the signs were in his garage, waiting to be picked up with the trash on Monday.

“They weren’t there last night,” said Kathryn Sweney in Grand Forks, who found Obama-Heitkamp signs in front of her house Friday morning next to her signs supporting Heitkamp and District 18 Democrats. “I don’t like it, and I would assume most people wouldn’t like it.”

The signs irked Republicans as well as Democrats. Romney-Berg signs were placed next to a sign for Gov. Jack Dalrymple at Fourth Street and DeMers Avenue in Grand Forks, a lot part-owned by District 42 Republican Sen. Lonnie Laffen.

“I never put them there. I never authorized them. I don’t know where they came from,” said Laffen, who only allows a Dalrymple sign at the intersection because his son works for the governor’s campaign.

Rose said those who installed the signs would be able to pick them up from the city if they wanted to place them in the proper spots.

The city issued a news release last month reminding residents of the rules for political signs, but with so many people helping the campaigns, sometimes “the word just doesn’t trickle down,” Rose said. The city issued another news release Friday about the sign laws.

Complaints filed

Heitkamp pointed to the yard signs as the latest example of questionable campaign tactics used by Berg supporters.

Her campaign said a Bismarck resident planned to file a complaint Thursday with the Federal Communications Commission about unsolicited text messages allegedly sent by the conservative Life & Marriage PAC to North Dakota voters, urging them to call a telephone number to find out why “top anti-fracking lawyers” are pouring money in Heitkamp’s campaign.

Many of the voters didn’t have a text message plan and were billed for receiving the message, according to William Woodworth’s complaint, a copy of which was provided to The Forum by the Heitkamp campaign.

Calls made to the FCC on Friday afternoon were not returned.

State Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, said she also has filed a complaint with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem about what she alleges was an illegal automated phone call paid for by Crossroads GPS, a right-wing super PAC.

“I would like to see a very substantial fine so that they understand that we don’t let out-of-staters come in here and break our laws,” she said.

Making a robo call in North Dakota is punishable by two separate laws with a combined fine of $7,000 per call, said Parrell Grossman, director of consumer protection and anti-trust division, who enforces the state’s “Do Not Call” laws.

Grossman said his office has conducted a “fairly exhaustive in-office investigation” into Meyer’s situation, and tracked the Crossroads calls to the St. Paul-based Connection Strategy LLC. Grossman said the group denied making any automated calls, saying their callers often read their scripts in a mechanical way.

“Companies that make these calls they either fall on their swords and immediately accept responsibility, or they admit they make the calls and argue whether they are legal or not,” he said. “It would be unusual in these kinds of investigations to find out that a company misrepresented whether or not the calls were prerecorded.”

Grossman said his office has strongly suggested to the firm that they begin to make their phone calls in a non-robotic fashion or add a disclaimer to the call, to indicate it is a live person.

Forum reporter Erik Burgess and Grand Forks Herald reporter Christopher Bjorke contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528