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Campaign finance group with untraceable funding goes after conservative North Dakota candidates

The Bismarck-based Brighter Future Alliance has spent more than $60,000 on political advertising this year, including nearly $29,000 on attack ads targeting Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn. Due to the group's campaign finance designation, it is not required to disclose its funding sources.

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Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, holds up an attack ad paid for by Brighter Future Alliance at a press conference in the North Dakota Capitol on Thursday, May 26, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — A campaign finance group targeting conservative North Dakota candidates with controversial attack ads asserts it’s working to inform voters, but critics have labeled the Brighter Future Alliance a “dark money” organization due to its lack of transparent funding sources.

The Bismarck-based group had spent about $60,000 on political advertising this year as of Wednesday, May 25, according to campaign finance filings.

Many of the ads paid for by Brighter Future Alliance oppose Republican legislative candidates, including Reps. Jeff Hoverson, Jeff Magrum and Sebastian Ertelt, as well as first-time contenders Brandon Prichard and Ryan Eckroth.

The group has also spent nearly $29,000 on negative ads about Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, including one mailer calling the local politician “an embarrassment” to the city.

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Brighter Future Alliance paid to send a mailer to Fargo residents that refers to Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn as "an embarrassment" to the city.
Photo submitted

Pat Finken, the group’s chairman and the former CEO of Bismarck-based advertising firm Odney, said Brighter Future Alliance will spend more than $100,000 prior to the primary and local elections on June 14.

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The nonprofit group has been active in North Dakota public life for the last decade, and in 2020, it spent more than $250,000 on political advertising — the vast majority of which was paid to Odney.

Finken said the group’s goal is “to give voters the information they need to make good decisions,” adding Brighter Future Alliance is also involved in making regulatory proposals and mobilizing voters.

“We wear our mission on our sleeve, and we play by the rules,” Finken said in an email.

The group is organized as an “independent expenditure filer” under North Dakota’s campaign finance laws, meaning it is not required to publicly list its sources of funding.

Finken declined to voluntarily disclose the group’s backers, but he specifically stated that Brighter Future Alliance had not received donations from Gov. Doug Burgum, who has shelled out six-figure sums for political ads through the Dakota Leadership PAC, or state Sen. Jim Roers, who recently tangled with Piepkorn over a proposed Fargo development.

Magrum refers to the group as “the darker future alliance” because of its untrackable funding sources and “deceitful” advertising campaigns.

One of the group’s mailers featuring Magrum, now a candidate for state Senate, says the Hazelton Republican “voted to defund law enforcement.” Another ad says he failed to support the North Dakota National Guard.

While Magrum voted against proposed budgets for law enforcement agencies and the National Guard in 2021, he said his opposition was to specific aspects of the bills, not the agencies or the services they provide.

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For instance, he said, he voted against the National Guard’s budget because it didn’t contain enough funding for first responders’ equipment. Magrum added he’s a huge advocate for the police and the military.

The group has sent out similar attack ads about Ertelt, who is also running for the upper chamber. The Gwinner Republican said the group’s deep pockets and willingness to put out inaccurate information makes the playing field uneven for candidates with limited funds.

“I’m very comfortable defending my record,” Ertelt said. “It’s harder to defend against misleading statements.”

Ertelt, who sponsored a failed bill last year to increase transparency in campaign finance disclosures, said he would support legislation to require groups like Brighter Future Alliance to divulge their funding sources. Magrum agreed, saying, “It’s definitely dark money, and it needs to be addressed.”

Piepkorn said the Brighter Future Alliance’s attacks on him have been “awful,” adding that they made his wife cry.

Being criticized by a mostly anonymous group is frustrating, but the city commissioner said the organization’s campaign against him may backfire because Fargoans are turned off by the aggressive tactics.

“This has helped me tremendously,” Piepkorn said. “I have political opponents telling me they’re going to vote for me now.”

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A mailer paid for by Brighter Future Alliance refers to Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn's behavior as "inexcusable."
Photo submitted

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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