A new, secretive political group has started sending mailers to Central New York voters, attempting to link Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter to human rights abuses in Kazakhstan.
The ads have shown up in local mailboxes in the final weeks of Balter’s campaign to unseat Rep. John Katko in one of the most competitive and closely watched House races in the nation.
A political action committee calling itself The Governing Majority Fund has spent more than $86,000 mailing at least two ads to voters in the 24th Congressional District since Sept. 24, federal election records show.
The ads fail to explain the premise for the claims: Balter taught one online course for a university in Kazakhstan to prepare government bureaucrats for graduate programs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
The Maxwell School, which has provided executive training for government officials in Kazakhstan since 2017, connected Balter with the students who needed help improving their English communication skills, said Steve Lux, director of Maxwell’s executive education program.
One of the ads states in big type, “Dana Balter ignored human rights abuses.”
Under images of shackled hands and cash in an envelope, the ad claims, “Balter profited off foreign officials linked to human rights abuses. And took money from an authoritarian government.”
A second mailer states that Balter “accepted payments to teach foreign government officials tied to human rights abuses.”
Balter told syracuse.com she was paid $1,900 by a government-run university in Kazakhstan to teach the “professional communications” course online to about 20 students in the fall and winter of 2019. The class met one day per week.
Students from the former Soviet republic in Central Asia were taught how to write a professional letter in English, Balter said, and to make oral and PowerPoint presentations about government policies.
Balter said the mailers distorted the truth to sow doubt about her with voters.
“It’s beyond dirty tricks,” Balter said. “It’s disgusting campaigning.”
Balter and Lux said the course she taught helped promote a larger effort by the Maxwell School to teach good government and governance to graduate students from some 20 nations around the world.
“To suggest that I would ever support or profit from human rights abuses is appalling,” Balter said. “It’s just one more strategy to fill people’s mail and television with lies to distract from the truth about the issues we’re facing.”
Katko’s campaign said it had nothing to do with the ads. It’s illegal for federal candidates to coordinate their campaigns with independent political groups.
It’s not clear exactly who is responsible for the ads from The Governing Majority Fund. The two mailers from the group listed a return address in Tampa, Fla., but no website, email address or other contact information.
The group registered with the Federal Election Commission as a political action committee on Feb. 3, FEC records show.
The Governing Majority Fund disclosed to the FEC on five separate occasions from Sept. 24 through Tuesday that it spent money on “direct mail services” in opposition to Balter’s candidacy. Each of the five payments was for $17,225.
The group’s registration form was filed by Nancy H. Watkins of the same Tampa, Fla., address that appeared on the mail.
Watkins is listed as the committee’s treasurer. She provided her email address and phone number as the PAC’s contact.
Watkins did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
A website for her firm describes Watkins as a certified public accountant for Robert Watkins & Co., an accounting firm whose client list includes members of Congress and the Florida State Legislature.
The firm’s website states that “our practice is limited to closely held businesses and individuals.”
The Governing Majority Fund did not identify its founders or members of its leadership team to the Federal Election Commission.
But a fundraising appeal for the group obtained by syracuse.com lists two former Republican congressmen – Reps. John Faso of New York and Jeff Denham of California – as its founders. Faso represented a district in the Catskills and Hudson Valley for one term.
Faso and Denham were members of the Republican Main Street Partnership – a moderate group of GOP lawmakers – with Katko during their time in office.
“We started the Governing Majority Fund to support the backbone of the Republican representation in key competitive districts,” Faso and Denham said in their private appeal to donors.
Their letter identified only four districts where they would provide support to GOP candidates in the 2020 election: Those of GOP Reps. Rodney Davis of Illinois, Fred Upton of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state and Katko.
Faso did not reply to a request for comment, nor did a political strategist whose email address was listed on the fundraising appeal.
Federal Election Commission records show The Governing Majority Fund received only two contributions (totaling $450,000) through June 30 – both that can be traced to building trade unions that have endorsed and supported Katko.
LIUNA Building America donated $250,000 to the Governing Majority Fund on March 11 and Working for Working Americans donated $200,000 to the group on June 26.
LIUNA Building America is the political arm of the Laborers International Union of North America. The 500,000-member union has endorsed Joe Biden for president over Donald Trump. The union has also backed Republicans like Katko, who serves on the House Transportation Committee.
The union has called for bigger federal investments in infrastructure to repair America’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects, which Katko supports.
Working for Working Americans is a super PAC whose largest donations have come from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. The union has more than 500,000 members nationwide. The union advocates for workers’ rights, infrastructure investments, and fair trade.
MORE ON THE 2020 ELECTION