As the Abramoff scandal threw a spotlight on the Alexander Strategy Group, the consulting firms two lead partners, Ed Buckham and Tony Rudy, claimed much of the media attention. But the rest of the firms stable remains largely unknownincluding Mike Mihalke and Chris Bertelli, who ran United Seniors ad campaign in 2003. Both Mihalke and Bertelli came to the Medicare issue with histories of deceptive campaigns.
On Halloween 1998, three days before the midterms, thousands of Democrats in Californias 10th district received mailings from an entity called the East Bay Democratic Committee. The letter, signed by Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, urged them to vote against Democratic incumbent Rep. Ellen Tauscher for having supported an impeachment inquiry into President Clinton. Thousands more residents received phone calls telling them to oppose Tauscher.
But there were two problems. First, the East Bay Democratic Committee didnt exist. Second, Miller strongly backed Tauscher. A Federal Election Commission investigation revealed the communications to be the brainchild of Adrian Plesha, campaign manager for Republican candidate Charles Ball, and Mihalke, a consultant to Ball and former aide to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Plesha, as the person who actually arranged and financed the mailings, was fined and sentenced to three years probation.
The next year, Mihalke joined Buckham to create television ads attacking vulnerable Democrats. Buckhams nonprofit, the U.S. Family Network, received $500,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), moved part of that sum to another group, which then paid Mihalke. The FEC fined the NRCC for violating election laws, but Buckham and Mihalke didnt fall under the scope of its investigation.
In 2000, Mihalke and Bertelli teamed up in California, where Bertelli ran a campaign supporting Proposition 38, a school vouchers proposal. Bertelli was spokesman for the initiative, while Mihalke designed and placed millions of dollars worth of controversial ads, including one that portrayed dropouts as muggers. Another falsely implied that then-Gov. Gray Davis backed the measure. Davis threatened to sue and asked the Assembly Rules Committee to take action, but no lawsuits or charges were filed.
In 2003, while Mihalke and Bertelli were working the Medicare issue, their company, Advocacy Technologies, was busy in Florida, where it orchestrated a phony grassroots campaign against proposals to allow slot machines at racing tracks. The Florida Election Commission traced the campaign to a front group called Floridians for Family Values, Inc. and fined the group for hiding its funding and expenses (donors included a company that represented rival gambling interests). Its major payments were to Advocacy Technologies, which sent mailings and ran phone banks to create an illusion of public opposition to the measures. Slots were later approved in one county, although the issue is being challenged in court. The pair have since moved on: Mihalke is forming a consulting firm, while Bertelli is assistant deputy director for the California Office of Homeland Security.