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Arizona-based expenditure committee may head back to court on robocall allegations

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Months after the election, Americans for Responsible Leadership is facing new legal troubles over its campaign activities.

The Arizona-based independent expenditure committee that was embroiled in a legal drama over its campaign spending in California last year may be heading back to court over allegations that it illegally autodialed cell phones while stumping for Mitt Romney in Colorado. A Denver woman, Marlo Edholm, in early February filed suit in federal court against the group, claiming ARL made five robocalls to her cell phone in the days leading up to the election.

Federal law prohibits robocalls to cell phones without the express consent of the recipient.

Edholm is seeking $7,500 in damages from ARL, plus interest, along with attorney’s fees. She is also asking the U.S. District Court in Denver to certify her suit as a class action suit, and is looking for other recipients of the robocalls.

“Plaintiff Marlo Edholm received at least five illegal robocalls from ARL and brings this class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act … to ensure both that ARL ceases its practice of illegally robocalling voters in the future and that ARL pays appropriate statutory damage for its past conduct,” attorney Joseph Mellon, who is representing Edholm, wrote in his Feb. 1 complaint.

In her suit, Edholm invoked ARL’s recent legal problems in California. The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which accused ARL of illegally laundering campaign contributions, sued to determine the source of $11 million it spent on two ballot measure campaigns last year.

“The pre-election robocalling campaign at issue in this case is yet another example of ARL’s disregard for the laws under which political organizations must operate,” Mellon wrote.

Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, organizations that don’t have Federal Communication Commission licenses face penalties of $500 per incident for robocalling cell phones. But recipients of the calls can sue for $1,500 if the caller knowingly violated the act.

Edholm is asking for $1,500 per call. She and Mellon argue that ARL knowingly violated the law because the FCC issued an enforcement advisory in September warning political committees that that it’s illegal to autodial cell phones.

Edholm could also file a complaint with the FCC, which could subject ARL to fines of up to $16,000 per incident. But Mellon said Edholm preferred to file a civil action in federal court instead.

Mellon denied that Edholm chose the federal court route for the money, simply saying that this is the road she chose. But he did acknowledge that she was seeking injunctive relief.

“It’s looking for injunctive relief,” Mellon said. “The FCC as well as the consumers consider these types of calls to be very disruptive. In fact, the FCC has been looking for ways to stop these kinds of calls. The real purpose is to protect the consumer from having to receive robocalls that are illegal.”

Barrett Marson, a spokesman for ARL, said the group has not seen the lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 1. He said he isn’t sure whether Edholm received a robocall on her cell phone.

But ARL will fight the suit, he said.

“From the millions of phone calls that ARL made around the country in last year’s election, this is the only complaint we have ever been made aware of about calls to cell phones. ARL followed FCC rules and regulations, and we’ll defend this lawsuit vigorously,” Marson said.

ARL, a nonprofit corporation founded by Republican businessman Robert Graham and later headed by former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, burst onto Arizona’s political scene in the fall. The group put about $600,000 into the campaigns against Proposition 121, which would have created a “top-two” primary election system, and spent $750,000 to fight Proposition 204, which would have made permanent the temporary one-cent sales tax that will expire this year.

ARL also spent nearly $10 million on the presidential race and other federal races across the country.

But it was in California where ARL made its biggest headlines after it contributed $11 million into two ballot measures campaigns. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, accused the group of money laundering, a charge later made by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. The commission sued ARL to determine the sources of the $11 million, which came from another nonprofit run by Arizona-based political consultant Sean Noble, who has ties to Adams and the millionaire Koch brothers.

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