Ridgeland-based non-profit advocacy group Empower Mississippi has funneled at least $46,000 to DeSoto County-based political action committees (PACs) that, in turn, paid for negative attack ads against Republican candidates in reliably conservative districts throughout the state in the last two weeks.

In at least three counties — DeSoto, Madison and Rankin — Empower Mississippi has provided funding for the PACs, which are carrying out the attacks against opponents of libertarian-leaning candidates.

The Journal reported last week on the attacks in Madison, where Republican Jill Ford is running against Johnny Black for the open seat in District 73 and Republican Bruce Bartley faces a tough primary against Republican incumbent Joel Bomgar in District 58.

Bartley’s were particularly nasty, dredging up an arrest for unpaid traffic tickets and old business debt in an effort to paint Bartley as a criminal and a failed businessman. Bartley did not dispute the tickets or debt.

Ford was falsely accused of being anti-Trump at the beginning of his campaign in 2016 as well as pointing out the arrest of her father nearly 15 years ago.

Ford has never shied away from talking about her father’s past, and recently posted on social media that it was her testimony that sent her father to prison.

Thurston Little, her father, served 29 months in federal prison after being convicted of aiding and abetting in making false entries and money laundering in a Mississippi insurance scam.

“I don’t know anything about my opponent’s voting record,” she said. “But I do know we met in March and we agreed to run a clean race, and it’s disappointing that Mr. Black and the interest groups supporting him have turned this race negative.”

Bartley could only speculate as to why the PACs have targeted him for negative ads, suggesting it might have something to do with his stance against the legalization of medical marijuana.

Empower Mississippi has mainly used two political action committees to carry out the attacks — Freedom Mississippi PAC and Mississippi First PAC, which have used the same Alpharetta, Ga.-based printing and distribution company the Stoneridge Group.

Both PACs list Empower Mississippi as their biggest donor, and in Freedom Mississippi’s case, its only donor.

According to the latest round of campaign finance reports, Empower gave Mississippi First PAC $31,000 on July 16 and Freedom Mississippi PAC $15,000 on July 25.

Freedom Mississippi, which is registered with a post office box address in Southaven, has targeted three candidates with its mailers — Ford, Kim Remak in DeSoto County’s District 7 and Jerry Darnell in District 28 near Hernando.

Remak is a Republican seeking the nomination for the House 7 seat from incumbent Steve Hopkins and Darnell is in a race with W.I. Harris, Jr. for the seat vacated by Robert Foster, who is running for governor.

Freedom Mississippi’s only registered officer is Mike Elliott of Southaven. The PAC applied for recognition from the Secretary of State’s office on July 25, the same day it received the donation from Empower. They Secretary of State’s Office stamped its statement of organization on July 29, and its first attack ad against Ford hit Madison mailboxes two days later on July 31.

Records show DeSoto-based Mississippi First PAC, which has former State Rep. Merle Flowers as its only listed agent, paid Stoneridge Group $14,796.96 for mailers on July 27, the same day Empower donated $15,000 to Mississippi First PAC.

Flowers answered a call from the Journal on Monday, July 29, but said he was busy and would call back. He has since failed to return multiple calls and messages.

Mississippi First PAC has paid for negative mailers against Ford, Bartley, Randy Denton in the District 25 race (also in DeSoto County), and Gene Newman, who is running for the District 61 seat in Rankin County.

Denton, who is challenging incumbent Dan Eubanks, posted on Facebook this week that he had met with his opponent early in the race and agreed to run a positive campaign.

“Earlier this week those PACs that support my opponent’s campaign broke that agreement,” Eubanks wrote. “There can be only one conclusion, my opponent and his team is directly or at least indirectly responsible.”

Newman faces Michael Sartor and Sheila Maulding in the District 61 race for the seat that’s been held by Ray Rogers since 1983. He posted on social media that “it’s sad our local election system has degenerated this badly.”

Since the start of the 24-hour reports, Mississippi First PAC has filed three independent expenditure forms for ads disparaging candidates dated July 31. Freedom Mississippi has filed four.

Remak posted about the negative mailers on Facebook over the weekend as well.

“Ever wonder why so few good people seek elected office,” she wrote. “It’s because our politics has been corrupted by distortions and lies.”

Remak also accused Hopkins of hiding “behind shadowy groups that none of us know.”

Empower’s funds come from many different donors, but by far its biggest contributor this election cycle is another PAC, Mississippi Federation for Children.

Records show Mississippi Federation for Children gave Empower $200,000 in two installments — one $100,000 contribution on May 15, 2017 and another for $100,000 on Dec. 29, 2017.

The Mississippi Federation for Children PAC is a political arm of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group previously chaired by current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

MFC PAC is registered with a Washington, D.C., address and has reported only two donors since the end of 2016 — William Oberndorf, a wealthy businessman from San Francisco, and Bomgar, Bartley’s opponent in the Aug. 6 primary next week.

The only contributions listed for Mississippi First PAC before that date came from WEP LLC. The only WEP LLC registered in good standing with the Secretary of State’s office lists William E. Phillips of Yazoo City as its owner. Phillips could not be reached by phone. 

Bomgar has denied any connection with the negative mailers, despite the fact that he has given, directly and indirectly, hundreds of thousands of dollars to Empower over the past four years.

“I had an agreement with (Empower Mississippi Director) Grant Callen that none of my money that I gave would be used for negative campaigning,” Bomgar said Wednesday. “So if they are funding attack ads, it isn’t coming from the money that I gave them.”

Callen confirmed that Empower Mississippi has honored that request from Bomgar, but did not respond to a question on whether there were stipulations attached to the $200,000 Empower received from the Mississippi Federation for Children PAC, which ultimately traces back to Bomgar.

When contacted Monday morning, Callen said he would try to answer questions from the Journal via email, but as of late afternoon had not acknowledged receipt of those questions or responded in any way.

Under the “What we do” section on the Empower Mississippi website, the organization says its aim is to advocate for policy change by promoting public policy solutions, providing empirical research on key issues, sharing the stories of Mississippians, educating and engaging citizens and supporting candidates in elections.