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The Secretive Keep Going Stay Strong Mail Out

It started appearing in mailboxes in recent days. It is a mailout that suggests that “things are getting better & our leaders are working hard.” In addition to the “things are getting better” message, the mailout includes messages about how El Paso is a destination place. The El Paso outreach campaign – which includes the mailout, a website and an online video – appears to suggest that El Paso voters should vote for the incumbents on November 3. However, the marketing campaign does not include support for a specific candidate.

Mailout Delivered to El Paso Voters – October 2020

The mailout appears to be targeted to El Paso voters just as early voting has begun.

Who is it supporting and why remains a mystery because the marketing campaign is secretive.

The mailout and the website do not include the expected political disclosure indicating who is paying for it. Two individuals in El Paso have told El Paso Politics that television commercials with the same content are running on KVIA and KTSM, however El Paso Politics was unable to verify this.

It appears that the marketing campaign is designed to keep who is paying for the outreach to El Paso voters a secret.

Noting what appeared to be the secretive nature of the marketing campaign, El Paso Politics set out to try to identify who is responsible for it.

We started with the mailout.

The Mailout

The return address for the mailout is a Postal Annex on the westside of town. Postal Annex provides mail services including providing private mail boxes for paying customers.

Postal Annex, El Paso

El Paso Politics called the Postal Annex asking for information about the mailbox used as a return address in the mailout. Diana, who did not provide her last name, told us that she could not confirm whether the PMB (mailbox) number was valid. She told us she would ask her manager to follow up with us, but the manager did not return our telephone call.

We next looked at the postal number used to pay for the postage.

The Postal Permit Number

The mailout includes a United States Postal Service permit number for postage. The Post Office does not provide information about their permit numbers to the public. However, they will provide it to individuals who receive mail with a permit number on it. El Paso Politics asked a recipient of the mailer to go to the post office to get the information on the postal permit number. The individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us that the post office clerk told them that the number 788 is issued to Airport Printing. Various companies and political candidates use Airport Printing for mailing services. Our attempts to get information from Airport Printing went unanswered.

Unable to ascertain who is paying for the marketing campaign from the mailout we then analyzed the website shown in the mailout.

The Domain Name & Website

The domain name, keepgoingstaystrong.com was registered on August 25, 2020. The registration information shows the domain name is owned by The Endurance International Group. Endurance is a technology company that owns several subsidiaries, including Blue Host, where the website is hosted.

Internet services companies like Blue Host are not required to release ownership details to the public.

El Paso Politics was unable to ascertain who owns the website through its domain name or its hosting package.

The Video

The marketing campaign website includes a 29-second video imploring El Pasoans to “keep going”. El Paso Politics analyzed the metadata for the video file. Like the metadata on the website, the video metadata also appears to have been removed. Nonetheless, we were able to ascertain that the online version of the video file was created on September 9, 2020.

El Paso Politics also determined that the video was uploaded and shared from Vimeo, a video file sharing service. Our analysis of the metadata for the file sharing service shows that the video was uploaded to the service by Sir Realistic Productions.

Meta data retrieved by El Paso Politics

Sir Realistic Productions aka Anthony “Tony” Duenez

According to the Vimeo account for Sir Realistic Productions, it is owned by Anthony “Tony” Duenez. Sir Realistic Productions is an El Paso video and sound production agency.

Anthony Duenez

Duenez also works for Fourtez Creative, as its media director, according to the companys website. Fourtez is part of the Forma Public Affairs, a public affairs company known for running political campaigns. The principals are Ricardo Armendariz and Marisa Marquez. Forma also operates TFG Campaigns, a campaign consulting services company. Among the services listed by TFG Campaigns on its website are direct mail services.

Tony, or Anthony Duenez is also listed as the Media Director for TFG Campaigns.

El Paso Politics left a voice message on Sir Realistic Productions’ phone number asking for a comment from Duenez. As of the publication time, we have not received a response from him. If Tony Duenez responds to our query, we will update this article.

The companies we have identified are all tied to Anthony “Tony” Duenez. In the case of Forma Public Affairs, TFG Campaigns and Fourtez Creative, all are listed under the Forma Group domain name: formagroup.net.

The Forma Group

The Forma Group has a long history of providing political campaign services in El Paso.

In 2008, the Forma Group presented the El Paso County Elections Department with a presentation detailing their services. According to the presentation, the Forma Group offers “design, public affairs and political campaign” services. The Forma Group offered “winning strategies from logo to television commercials and from opposition research to victory speeches,” according to the presentation to the county’s election department. Ricardo Armendariz founded the company.

Among Forma’s political clients have been Dee Margo (2008 & 2012), Naomi Gonzalez and Steve Ortega. Another former client is Marisa Marquez.

On March 12, 2016, Marty Schladen reported in the El Paso Times that Marquez was going to work for the Forma Group starting in July 2016. Marquez was still the El Paso State Representative. The Times article also noted that Ricardo Armendariz “was paid between $50,000 and $100,000 by Mountainstar Sports Group LLC to lobby” for Bill 1742 which was filed by Marquez.

Mountainstar Sports Group owns the El Paso Chihuahuas and The Locomotive.

Forma Offers To Protect Politician

On October 14, 2013, Canutillo School District Board President, Armando Rodriguez released a written statement stating that “Mark Smith of the Forma Group” sent him a text message on December 8, 2012. Rodriguez included screen shots of the text message he received.

Screen Shot Released by Armando Rodriguez

The Forma Group was offering Marquez to run “interference” for “$13,500 per month.”

Mark A. Smith

Mark Smith is the founding partner of Mark Smith Public Affairs (SPA). He states on his online profile that they have worked “in a direct lobbying, advocacy, and advisory role on behalf of clients such as: Borderland Mobility Coalition; Brown McCarroll, LLP; Christi Craddick Campaign; Campaign for Primary Accountability PAC; Dewhurst for Texas; Elite Medical Transport; El Paso Tomorrow PAC; Friends of Susan Combs; Forma Group LLC; Hunt Companies, Inc.; Hunt Family; Medical Center of the Americas; People for Steve Pearce; Perry Presidential; Republican National Congressional Committee; Republican National Senatorial Committee; Romney Presidential; Justice Rebecca Simmons; Sun City Behavioral-El Paso MHMR; Texans for John Cornyn, Inc.; Texans for Lawsuit Reform; Texans for Rick Perry; Justice Don Williett, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe.”

Also, according to his online profile, since 2000 Smith has “successfully managed over 25 campaigns at the local, state, and federal level,” with the Forma Group.

Prior to forming Mark Smith Public Affairs in March of 2010, Smith worked in “government affairs” for Hunt Companies, Inc.

The Citizens for Prosperity PAC

In 2007, Woody Hunt formed the Citizens for Prosperity PAC. The PAC was comprised of J. Robert Brown, Paul Foster, Rick Francis, Harold Hahn and Ted Houghton.

In an El Paso, Inc. article on June 30, 2011, David Crowder wrote that the PAC, named by Woody Hunt, had “decided not to give money directly to the candidates it supports, rather their contributions go directly to The Forma Group.”

Through 2014, Citizens for Prosperity contributed $210,870.18 to two candidates; Ann Morgan Lilly and Cortney Niland. The majority of the money, $183,337.70, went to Niland.

Is It Legal?

El Paso Politics reached out to the Texas Ethics Commission to try to answer the question about the legality of the campaign. The issue, according to two commission attorneys we spoke to at the hotline, is defining whether the mailout and the rest of the advertisements are political advertisements.

The attorneys would not offer legal opinions as to the legality of the mailout or the website but did offer the following in trying to determine if the political disclosure is required. The first is “who it’s from.” As discussed above, other than connecting the video to the Forma Group via its employee, Anthony Duenez, we have not been able to determine who is paying for the campaign.

The second was whether the context of the advertisements suggested a “vote for,” or a “vote against” certain candidates.

Although the mailout and the website do not mention any candidate by name, they suggest that “El Paso’s leaders,” from the website and “our leaders are working hard” from the mailout suggests that the campaign advocates for the incumbent leadership of El Paso.

The second commission attorney told the El Paso Politics that any “Texas resident” can file a complaint with the commission if they feel a violation of the Texas Election Code has happened. The commission attorney said that upon a complaint being filed, an initial committee “may be able” to determine if the “political disclosure is required.”

Dark Money

Not knowing who is funding a political campaign does not allow the voters to know who is behind an effort to influence their vote. Usually, political advertisements carry the required political disclosure to give voters the ability to evaluate the merits of the political message. In this case, the marketing campaign seemingly encourages voters to vote for incumbents but does inform them who wants them to do so.

There is no transparency when voters do not know why their vote is being curried, and by whom.

Others have argued that Americans have the fundamental right to express themselves under the First Amendment. Spending money to do so allows them to suggest political positions and candidates. Forcing them to say who is funding them violates their fundamental right of free expression.

Ultimately it is Texas law, in this case, that will make the determination as to the legality of the marketing campaign.

El Paso Politics will continue to investigate who is funding this marketing campaign that seems so secretive. We will report any new information we discover.

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