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Political ad firm defends tactics

Mallard Group's owner is unapologetic as his mailers for candidates are criticized and his clients look back at losses.

Published September 12, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - One ad suggested a judicial candidate was a tax cheat when he simply underestimated his taxes. Another said a state Senate candidate was active with the Church of Scientology when she actually is a Baptist. A third confused a House candidate's business with a California company accused of selling government secrets for profit.

All three ads were the work of the Mallard Group of Clearwater, and all three candidates behind them lost in last week's primaries.

The losses came less than three months after a Pinellas-Pasco judge was kicked off the bench partly because of a misleading Mallard ad.

"You can't willy-nilly make these charges with the slimmest element of truth," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The Mallard Group, which earned $800,000 this election cycle, had one of its worst elections in years. Randy Johnson, a Republican candidate for chief financial officer; circuit judge candidate Robert "Bo" Michael; and six Republican state House and state Senate candidates lost their primaries.

In a year marked by the negative tone of many political ads, Mallard's were particularly harsh, political observers say.

Political consultants usually work behind the scenes, but Mallard's ads combined with its clients' losses last week cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the company.

But don't blame negative ads for his clients' losses, says Jack Hebert, Mallard's owner.

They lost because the ads weren't negative enough, says Hebert, 53.

His clients, he said, "should have gone more on the attack."

Dozens of negative ads about local House and Senate candidates wound up in voter mailboxes this year. Many were sent by candidates, but dozens were paid for by independent political groups. So while Republican state Senate nominee Berfield, 35, says she didn't use negative mailers against primary opponent Frank Farkas, groups supporting her mailed seven.

One put Farkas' face on the body of a French bulldog and called him a lap dog to lobbyists. Another said Farkas, a chiropractor, didn't think mammograms were important because he sponsored a bill to let employers offer health insurance without coverage for mammograms.

Farkas points out that his mother died of breast cancer.

Most of the ads were from People for a Better Florida, supported by Florida doctors and medical groups. Such groups are known as 527s, after the section of federal tax law authorizing them.

"It was a whole different tenor than we were used to," said Farkas, 50, state House District 52 representative since 1998. "If this is the new political landscape, then unless you have 527s backing you, there's no way you can win."

But Farkas had some help, too.

A political group called Health Watch Florida, run by St. Petersburg chiropractor Donald Krippendorf, attacked Berfield with mailers, including one that crowned her with a tiara and a beauty queen sash emblazoned with "Ms. Insurance Industry Friend of the Year."

The political action committee also targeted Peter Nehr, who won the House District 48 Republican primary. Ken Peluso, a chiropractor who hired the Mallard Group in his race against Nehr, says he knew nothing about the ad.

"Mr. Peluso gave me his word that he didn't know anything about that, and I believe him," said Nehr, 54

Hebert, who has been lead lobbyist for the Florida Chiropractic Association and was a consultant to chiropractors Farkas, Peluso and Rod Jones this year, said future clients will have a few political committees to do the "dirty work or good work."

The lesson is not that negative ads don't work, Hebert said. It's that his clients were outgunned by negative attacks from independent groups.

"The point is you're going to have two candidates with the equivalent of pea shooters and all these groups around them with rifles and cannons," said Hebert. "That's where the battle is going to be won."

Hebert sees nothing wrong with the Scientology ads. One said Berfield was a "key ally" of the church and that church leaders were involved in her campaign. It was nothing personal and it was all in the public record, Hebert said.

But others say the ad was irresponsible because it included private citizens and distorted Berfield's dealings with the church.

"There is no place for religion in a political campaign, and clearly that's something the Mallards ought to hang their heads in shame about," said retired political consultant Mary Repper, 63, who does public relations work for Scientology and was pictured in one of the ads.

Probably one of the most controversial mailings suggested Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge candidate Jack Day committed tax fraud.

The ad prompted Day to sue Michael for defamation.

Hebert said he could not talk about the ad because it is the subject of a legal dispute.

Day 57, who beat Michael despite the last-minute attack, said he expected negative advertising from Hebert's firm because he knew it was behind the ad that was partially responsible for the Florida Supreme Court removing Judge John Renke II from the bench. The 2002 ad misrepresented Renke's experience as a trial lawyer and made it appear he was an incumbent.

Michael declined to comment on the ad, saying he's moved on with his life, and congratulated Day.

Hebert is unapologetic about the Renke campaign.

"I still stand by the factual content of those ads," Hebert said. "I think it was a witch hunt because the anointed person that was supposed to win didn't win."

Several political experts say Hebert's firm appears to be getting worse with few consequences (though it is a defendant in Day's lawsuit).

Nancy Riley, who lost to Ed Hooper in the state House District 50 Republican primary Sept. 5, sent out an ad saying Hooper was "a government employee in the business of selling company secrets."

The Mallard Group mistook Hooper's company, a government relations consultant specializing in construction management, for a company in California that compiles dossiers on businesses.

Riley and Hebert apologized for the mistake, but Hooper points out the damage was done when the mailer was sent to voters.

"I thought the John Renke case would change things," said Jack Latvala, who employed Hebert for 10 years as vice president of his political consulting firm, Direct Mail Systems.

Latvala helped four candidates who beat Mallard clients, including Day, Berfield, Hooper and House District 54 candidate James Frishe.

"I'm not critical of Jack Hebert personally, it's just some of the tactics he's used that concern me," Latvala said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 12, 2006, 06:04:32]

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