Newspaper or campaign mailer? AG’s office taking ‘a look’ at charges

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Residents across Kootenai County received something new in their mailboxes this month. Longtime Idaho political consultant Lou Esposito said Tuesday that The Idahoan is a “conservative voter information periodical” meant to inform Idaho’s residents. It makes no bones about its conservative perspective, said Esposito, but is intended to start conversations among people across the political spectrum.

The idea of starting a conservative newspaper has been bounced around for several years, he said. Conservatives have been frustrated at the lack of a good source of information on conservative issues and political happenings in the Gem State, he explained. Esposito said this year the idea finally came together as The Idahoan. Its initial issue was heavy on information about primary election candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties. It also included commentaries by The Idahoan’s creators, and by conservative groups such as Idaho Chooses Life.

Like other newspapers, Esposito said The Idahoan will be published on a regular basis. The plan is to print three issues per year. The May edition focuses on upcoming primary elections and reviews the recently completed legislative session. An October edition will cover legislative races or local races in off years, and a January edition will preview the legislative session.

Following the first edition of The Idahoan, Idaho Democratic Party attorney Sam Dotters-Katz sent a letter to Secretary of State Lawerence Denney on May 4, calling The Idahoan “nothing more than a campaign mailer intended to sway voters before the upcoming primary elections.” Katz demanded Denney investigate whether “certain conservative political organizations are funding The Idahoan and are attempting to circumnavigate campaign and election laws by improperly classifying The Idahoan as a newspaper.”

In his letter, Dotters-Katz also asked Denney to recuse himself from the investigation. Scott Graf, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Tuesday that the “Secretary of State has asked us to take a look.” Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst said Tuesday his office requested the attorney general’s office “to tell us whether it meets the qualifications of a newspaper.”

The Democrats’ complaints are ironic, said Esposito. The 48-page, full-color, first edition of The Idahoan gave “Democratic candidates more coverage around the state than probably any other publication right now,” he said with a laugh.

Esposito explained that the Free Enterprise PAC spent $100,000 in cash on advertisements in the first edition, with $45,000 of it going to The Idahoan and $55,000 going to Esposito’s consulting company Spartac, LLC. From those two sources, the $100,000 paid for ads for the Free Enterprise PAC, GUN PAC, and Idaho Chooses Life valued at $30,000 each, and a website ad for the Idaho Land PAC valued at $10,000. The Free Enterprise PAC donated ads to the other PACs as in-kind contributions to make the public more aware of them, Esposito said. The May 8 pre-primary campaign financial disclosure reports for GUN PAC, Idaho Chooses Life, and Idaho Land PAC show in-kind contributions of $35,000, $30,000, and $15,000 from the Free Enterprise PAC on April 19-20. The May 8 report for Free Enterprise PAC also shows a $45,000 expenditure to The Idahoan on April 20, plus five expenditures to Spartac, LLC between January and April that total $155,775.

“There’s nothing illegal” about a PAC buying an advertisement, Esposito said. Esposito explained that the ad rates were market rates for the statewide publication. Political groups funded less than half of the first edition’s printing and mailing costs, he said. “There’s nothing inexpensive about this endeavor,” he said.

Like other publications, the size and number of copies of future editions of The Idahoan will depend on advertising sales. Esposito said he has received a lot of positive feedback since the first edition hit the streets, including advertising inquiries. In the future he said The Idahoan hopes to take on a local or regional scope, dependent on writers creating original, in-depth news content from across the state. He also hopes to hire staff for the publication, he said.

Esposito emphasized what he calls the hypocrisy of the Democrats’ complaints. The Democrats have not questioned the source of funds for groups like Resistance, he said. Neither has the media asked questions about the Democrats’ money, he added.

“Where’s the articles on where the Democrats’ money is coming from?” he asked. “It’s sad to see what’s happened over time to the media.”

The Democrats’ hostility toward conservative voices “doesn’t help discourse,” he said.

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