Dexter F. Vaughan, a 27-year-old former staffer for Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, led a political nonprofit that spent $1 million attacking gubernatorial candidates in Rhode Island and Illinois in 2014.
A spokesman said Mandel, whose unsuccessful 2012 bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio, attracted $13 million of dark money support, had never heard of the group, known as the “Mid America Fund,” and pointed out that Dexter Vaughan hadn’t worked in the treasurer’s office since 2011.
The Mid America Fund is one of a number of conservative dark money groups based in Ohio that have intervened in races both in state and around the country, often interconnected, and some with ties to Mandel. Filings in Rhode Island, for instance, one of the few states that requires nonprofits active in state politics to disclose their donors, show that Vaughan’s organization’s biggest donor was another nonprofit, the Government Integrity Fund.
The Government Integrity Fund has a connection to Mandel as well: In 2012, Joel Riter, another former Mandel aide, went to work for a lobbyist who chaired the group. That fact came to light after the Government Integrity Fund group started running TV ads bashing Mandel’s opponent in the 2012 race for Ohio Senate, Sherrod Brown. In spite of the attacks, Brown won the race.
For dark money groups formed in an election year, there are few requirements to disclose the names of individuals who run the organization, and none to make public the source of the group’s income. In the case of the Mid America Fund, it’s not even clear whether Dexter Vaughan or the group’s original incorporator, a woman named Roberta J. Mertz, had any real control over the group’s spending, fundraising or day-to-day operations. What is clear is that in the convoluted world of outside groups, political insiders proliferate.
The Mid America Fund and the Government Integrity Fund are part of a loosely-connected network of Ohio-based PACs and nonprofits that hide the identity of their donors and back Republican candidates for state and federal office. Most donors have been anonymous or hidden by pass-through PACs.
Although it’s common for the network to add nonprofits or change their names, some of the same organizations names keep coming up: Citizens for a Working America, New Models and the Government Integrity Fund. Norm Cummings, who served as political director of the Republican National Committee in the late ’80s and has worked for years in Ohio politics, had ties to all three groups and others as well.
Cummings served as campaign manager for Ken Blackwell when he ran for Ohio Treasurer in 1994. An analysis by the Akron Beacon Journal showed that the campaign swapped $60,000 worth of state money with the national party to avoid state fundraising restrictions, part of a much wider effort on the part of state Republican organizations to use almost $1 million in “soft money” contributed directly by corporations to win races. Cummings told the Beacon Journal that the restrictions infringed on free speech.
Years later, New Models, a nonprofit organization that lists Cummings as a board member, was caught up in a state investigation that threatened to unveil its funders. State Democrats had complained that New Models gave $1.55 million to a state PAC, LetOhioVote.org, without disclosing its donors, but a federal judge ultimately rejected subpoenas for New Models’ donors, ruling the state didn’t have jurisdiction over out-of-state contributors. Cummings served as a political consultant for LetOhioVote.org.
Others involved in the Ohio dark money network include Tim Crawford, president of New Models and former treasurer of 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin; Tom Norris, an Ohio lobbyist, president of the Government Integrity Fund and a board member of a nonprofit known as the Jobs and Progress Fund; and David Langdon, who’s performed legal services for some of the groups, including New Models and the Jobs and Progress Fund.
Mid America gets its start
The Mid America Fund was formed Jan. 13, 2014 by Roberta J. Mertz, according to Ohio records that list her home address as the nonprofit’s mailing address. Within days it was airing attack ads aimed at three of now Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s opponents in the state’s GOP primary. The group would spend about $245,000, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Something similar had happened the previous year, when Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., considered getting into the gubernatorial primary. The Jobs and Progress Fund spent roughly $700,000 on negative ads against him, and Schock decided against running. Jobs and Progress Fund is represented on state filings by David Langdon, the Ohio lawyer with links to many of the related nonprofits, and has on its board Tom Norris, the Ohio lobbyist who chairs the Government Integrity Fund.
Mertz’s career includes stints for three House Republicans, including the late Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., who retired in 2004, Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., and Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. Mertz appears to have spent the last six years working in the library of Belmont College, a public two-year community college in St. Clairsville, Ohio, a connection first noticed by commenters on the Illinois blog capitolfax. Mertz wouldn’t respond to calls or emails.
The Illinois ads aired during the gubernatorial primary in early 2014. But the Rhode Island ads ran during the general election, in October and November. The Mid America Fund reported spending a total of about $850,000 in Rhode Island, all paid to Washington D.C. firm Pound Feinstein and Associates. Most of the money went towards buying TV ads opposing Democrat Gina Raimondo, who went on to win the Rhode Island governorship.
Unlike most states, Rhode Island law requires that donors to outside groups be named. In two filings, Mid America Fund disclosed it received roughly $735,000 from the Government Integrity Fund and the rest — $125,000 — from the Republican Governor’s Association. The Center for Responsive Politics has previously reported that a number of the groups in the Ohio network have paid firms associated with Nick Ayers, a former RGA executive director who is now a partner at L.A.-based ad buyer Target Enterprises.
Mid America Fund’s Rhode Island filings kept Mertz’ address, but changed the name of the group’s president to Dexter Vaughan. One of those filings, however, was notarized in Puerto Rico, where local rules require notaries to record a document signer’s driver’s license number. Marty Yant, an author and licensed Ohio private investigator, confirmed that the address on the driver’s license filed on the Rhode Island documents matched an address Vaughan listed when he worked for Mandel’s campaign for treasurer years earlier.
Vaughan’s Ties to Mandel
In late 2010, Josh Mandel, then 33 and a rising GOP star, was on the verge of winning his race for Ohio state treasurer. Campaign filings show that Dexter Vaughan and his mother, Bonnie Vaughan, were helping out with the campaign: Both were reimbursed about $900 for postage.
Dexter Vaughan, then 23, was also paid $2,000 for “political consulting,” though the payment was dated Dec. 1, 2010, roughly a month after Mandel won the race. Both Bonnie and Dexter Vaughan’s reimbursements went to the same Middlefield, Ohio address that, public records show, is owned by Bonnie Vaughan. The property includes a 5,800 square foot house with a pool on 7.9 acres that the county values at just under a million dollars.
When Mandel took office, Dexter Vaughan and a number of other young campaign staffers joined him in the state treasurer’s office. Vaughan was paid $26.45 an hour plus benefits, according to the Dayton Daily News, but he didn’t stay long. He left the treasurer’s office in May 2011 to work on Mandel’s campaign for U.S. Senate. State records show he was paid $10,445 for his brief stint on Mandel’s administrative staff.
Mandel’s office quickly ran into criticism for appointing campaign staffers and college friends to public jobs. The Huffington Post reported that the 26-year-old political director of Mandel’s state treasurer campaign was named director of debt management for the state of Ohio, and had to attend a beginner’s seminar in bond-buying to get up to speed. During the campaign, Mandel had accused the previous treasurer of appointing “political cronies” to public jobs.
Dexter Vaughan didn’t work for Mandel’s Senate campaign for long. His first paycheck was in June 2011, his last was dated Sept. 1 that year. Altogether he was paid just under $11,500.
Vaughan now works at J.D.D. Inc, an Ohio custodial and building maintenance company founded by his father, James Vaughan Jr., in 1994. J.D.D. Inc. has done millions in government contract work for clients like NASA and Edwards Air Force Base as well as local groups like the East Cuyahoga Library. Father and son both also serve on the board of Platinum Services and Training, a nonprofit that trains the developmentally disabled to provide janitorial services for cancer patients and for “commercial customers,” according to its web site.
Dexter Vaughan did not return calls for comment. James Vaughan Jr. said in an email that he had never heard of the Mid America Fund.