A new political group spreads debunked claims while its supporters remain in the shadows

Whose Bright Idea? 

A new political group spreads debunked claims while its supporters remain in the shadows

As members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors seek re-election, a shadowy nonprofit organization is making a demonstrably false claim about missing money in the county's transportation budget.

And at least one Republican candidate who is seeking to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors has been using the bogus allegation as a reason to vote for her in the Aug. 28 primary.

Ally Miller, a Tea Party organizer who is among four candidates vying to replace the retiring Supervisor Ann Day, said she believes the claim of Arizonans for a Brighter Future, a business group created by anonymous political operatives who have issued a "Fact Sheet" alleging that the county has failed to keep track of $345 million in the transportation budget over the last 10 years.

"I've been doing some research, and there was a group that did a lot of research on the HURF (Highway User Revenue Fund) money over the last 10 years, (and) $340 million is unaccounted for," Miller said.

But Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said whoever put together "Fact Sheet No. 1" on the website of Arizonans for a Brighter Future (azbrighterfuture.com) got some very basic facts wrong. As he put it in a May memo to the supervisors: "The Arizonans for a Brighter Future need to turn up the wattage, as their website conclusion is somewhat of a dim bulb."

Huckelberry wrote that Arizonans for a Brighter Future took some figures from a report to the Board of Supervisors about decreases in state transportation funding and came up with a "foolish" conclusion: Essentially, the group took the amount of money that the county received from the state via HURF dollars and then subtracted the total amount that the county spent on repaying bonds and a pavement-repair program. It then claimed that the difference, which came out to $345 million over 10 years, was "unaccounted for."

But Huckelberry said the money is accounted for—and the details can be found in budget documents that the county has posted online. The money in question went to running the county's Department of Transportation, including costs for the transportation staff, traffic engineering and design work, street signs, utility bills and all of the other expenses that come with running a transportation department.

Miller, who touts her background in accounting in the private sector as one of her main qualifications for office, said that when she looked into the figures that Arizonans for a Brighter Future put forward, she didn't find any problem.

"Everything that I looked at, it rings true," said Miller, who had not seen Huckelberry's memo. "The data is exactly as they're stating here."

However, none of Miller's GOP primary opponents in District 1—which includes the Catalina foothills, Oro Valley and parts of Marana—share her outrage over Arizonans for a Brighter Future's assertion.

Mike Hellon, the former state GOP chairman and national committeeman, was the most dismissive.

"It's my understanding that allegation ... as far as I can tell, is simply false," Hellon said. "Now, you can argue about whether they should have spent it the way they spent it, but that's an entirely different matter."

State Rep. Vic Williams said he's hasn't looked into Arizonans for a Brighter Future's claims.

"They've never sent me any of that information," Williams said. "I would be interested in studying it, but I can tell you this: I've seen other people in this race misrepresent facts. I've seen other groups misrepresent facts. Until I get everything in front of me, I can't comment as to the validity of this claim."

Stuart McDaniel, a former mortgage broker, told the Weekly he wasn't very familiar with the Arizonans for a Brighter Future report.

Miller said she doesn't know who is behind Arizonans for a Brighter Future, because she received the information anonymously via email. But she dismissed Huckelberry's explanation, because when he's questioned about budgets, "he always says everything is a misread."

Miller isn't the only one in the dark about Arizonans for a Brighter Future's backers. Despite their promise of sunny days ahead, the group is determined to remain in the shadows.

"The purpose of our organization is to help the business community by working with state and local governments to improve the image of our community," the group states on its website. "Our goal is to change the environment to be more 'business friendly' in order to help local companies expand and attract new business to our community."

But the Weekly was unable to speak with a representative of Arizonans for a Brighter Future, because the organizers refuse to identify themselves.

Deb Weisel of TagLine Media, the public-relations firm that created the Arizonans for a Brighter Future website, said the people behind the new nonprofit want to "keep their identities under wraps," because they are too frightened to come forward. Weisel said that the group's backers are worried about "repercussions for people when they start putting messages out there."

The organization filed its organizational paperwork in Delaware rather than Arizona. The Weekly has filed a request with the Delaware Division of Corporations for the information, but Delaware officials say it could take weeks to process the paperwork.

TagLine Media has worked with a variety of Republican candidates and other organizations, including state Sen. Frank Antenori, unsuccessful council candidate Shaun McClusky and the reconstituted Rio Nuevo Board.

This year, TagLine is not only working on behalf of Arizonans for a Brighter Future; it's also on the payroll of Miller and two other Republican candidates for the Board of Supervisors: Sean Collins, who hopes to unseat Supervisor Ray Carroll in the Aug. 28 GOP primary, and Tanner Bell, who is running against Democratic Supervisor Sharon Bronson in the Nov. 6 general election.

It doesn't appear as if Arizonans for a Brighter Future has made much of a splash with its claims. A YouTube video that makes a similar claim about missing money had received just 126 views since it was posted on May 2. The group's Facebook page has just five "likes" (including Ally Miller) and mostly has links to videos and expressions of outrage over potholes.

But political nonprofits like Arizonans for a Brighter Future are increasingly being used as vehicles for well-heeled special-interest groups to air negative attack ads.

Hellon was puzzled by the reluctance of the group's organizers to come forward.

"It seems to me that if you are interested in debating a public-policy matter, and you think you have your facts right, then you shouldn't be afraid to let people know who you are," Hellon said.

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