Phil Scott targeted for opposition research

Newly announced GOP candidate for governor Bruce Lisman says a Virginia-based opposition-research firm working on his behalf is responsible for records-requests filed in Vermont last month seeking information about Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

Lisman, however, said the firm, called Jackson-Alvarez Group, conducted the research without his knowledge, direction or consent. “That’s not how I work,” Lisman said Tuesday evening.
When asked about the requests earlier Tuesday, Lisman said he’d never heard of the Jackson-Alvarez Group.

“I thought it sounded like the name of a singer or something,” Lisman said in the subsequent interview. Lisman did, however, say it was possible someone working on his behalf had filed the requests, and said he then made some inquiries.

Bruce Lisman

Bruce Lisman

Lisman now says a person he’d been working with, Gary Maloney, is president of the Jackson-Alvarez Group. Lisman says until Tuesday evening he was unaware of Maloney’s affiliation with the firm.

Lisman says he’d hired Maloney to perform research on him. “He was supposed to do a background check on me, because I think it’s always good to get fresh eyes.”

Lisman said that unbeknownst to him, someone at the firm, “or possibly Gary himself, took it upon themselves” to conduct opposition research on Scott.

“I’m very upset about it, obviously,” Lisman said.

Lisman said he’s instructed Maloney to cease his research on Scott, and is in the process of deciding whether he’ll continue having Maloney’s firm work for him.

Earlier Tuesday, Lisman became the first Republican candidate to announce for governor. Party leaders are already celebrating the prospect of an issue-driven primary between the former Wall Street executive and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. But it doesn’t look like the fellow Republicans will give each other kid-glove treatment in the name of party unity.

Last month, a pair of public-records requests arrived at two government agencies in Vermont. They were notable not only for their origin – a PO box in McLean, Virginia – but also for the telephone contact of the person who sent them.

The number, as it turns out, belongs to a political opposition research firm called the Jackson-Alvarez Group. And the company, which works almost exclusively for conservative clients, was fishing for information on Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, including transportation contracts on which his company, Dubois Construction, had bid.

Phil Scott

Phil Scott

“I had heard the rumor that there was a FOIA request of some sort,” Scott said Tuesday.

So who’s digging for dirt on the likely Republican candidate for governor? Newly announced GOP candidate for governor Bruce Lisman, perhaps?

“Yes, it’s possible. We haven’t contracted for anything,” Lisman said Tuesday.

Lisman denied any knowledge of the Jackson-Alvarez Group. And asked earlier Tuesday whether he’d engaged any outside consulting groups or political firms in advance of his announcement, Lisman was somewhat circumspect.

“We haven’t done anything official yet,” Lisman said.

Asked whether it’s possible the records request for Scott’s contracting information could have been related to conversations he’s had with outside consultants, Lisman paused:

“It could be,” Lisman said. “A note to self – I’m going to go find out.”

Jay Riestenberg is a research analyst at Common Cause, a national organization that tries to put a spotlight on the influence of money in politics. Riestenberg says opposition research, which often involves dredging up unflattering information about political opponents, is a frequently employed campaign strategy.

While it’s a term that tends to evoke the dark arts of politics, Riestenberg says it has a useful place in the process.

“Opposition research can be used to create attack ads, and all those negative ads that people hate,” Riestenberg says. “But it also can be used to find the truth that voters need to hear.”

Scott says he doesn’t begrudge whoever’s responsible for the requests, and that his business dealings with the state ought to come under a microscope. But he says he likely won’t follow suit.

“I would rather run on the merits of my candidacy rather than the deficiencies of others,” Scott said.

No matter Scott’s approach, Lisman will also be the subject of an opposition research campaign in the Republican primary, one funded and spearheaded by himself.

“We are going to have somebody that’s going to do that kind of work up on me,” Lisman said. “The concept is you want somebody to sift through and see what they see that I can’t think of.”

Scott says he’s leaning toward entering the race.

The records requests – one sought contract information at the Agency of Transportation, the other the dates and names of attendees at cabinet meetings held by Gov. Peter Shumlin – were authored by Christopher Cox, who didn’t list any professional associations on the correspondence.

The Jackson-Alvarez Group doesn’t have a website, Facebook page or any other online presence. According to the transparency website Open Secrets, its highest-dollar clients in the last election cycle included the Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund and Republican Sens. Pat Roberts, Thad Cochran and Joni Ernst.

Lisman says he also commissioned a poll earlier this summer. He has yet to register as a candidate at the secretary of state’s office.

This story was first published by VPR News and posted by the Vermont Press Bureau as part of an agreement with VPR.

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