CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The North Carolina group at the center of a controversial campaign ad in the special election for Georgia's Sixth Congressional District has a long and complex history of creating and disbanding political organizations, a WBTV investigation has uncovered.
The Principled Leadership Project PAC released an ad in the final days of the GA-06 special election playing off the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA), congressional staffers and police officers during a baseball practice last week.
The ad, entitled 'Stop the Violent Left,' claims more Republican politicians will be shot if Democrat candidate John Ossoff wins the election and encourages voters to support Republican Karen Handel instead.
Both Handel and Ossoff have denounced the ad.
But a WBTV investigation has found this is not the first time the Principled Leadership Project PAC—or the man behind it, Reilly O'Neal—has been at the center of controversy.
A review of campaign finance records and business filings in North Carolina and elsewhere reveal a web of organizations tied to O'Neal and others involved with the Principled Leadership Project PAC.
O'Neal primarily operates from his company, Tidewater Strategies.
Campaign finance records show Tidewater Strategies has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from political campaigns and groups he also runs, including Greg Brannon's three unsuccessful campaigns for US Senate and US House of Representatives.
Records show Tidewater Strategies has also been paid by a number of groups that bill themselves as conservative organizations, including the Principled Leadership Project PAC, the North Carolina Gun Rights PAC and, previously, a political action committee supporting libertarian-leaning politician Ron Paul in Maine, Defense of Liberty PAC.
Each of those groups have faced criticism for their questionable tactics.
Ethics complaint in Maine
In Maine, O'Neal was one of four former Ron Paul staffers that founded the Defense of Liberty PAC. The group was the subject of a complaint made to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics in 2013.
Ultimately, the ethics commission chose to not investigate the claims made by Eisenhart.
The complaint was filed by a concerned citizen who was concerned that "the Maine political process is being undermined by four very artful and ambitious, young men from away."
The complaint claims - and campaign finance records confirm - that O'Neal was hired by the organization's founders to create the group and lead membership and fundraising efforts.
Patrick Eisenhart, a retired commanders from the US Coast Guard, filed the complaint. He closed his letter to the ethics commission by saying the DOLPAC "just does not pass the smell test of being what it purports to be."
Document: Read the full Maine ethics complaint
O'Neal scheduled and then missed an on-camera interview with WBTV to discuss the findings of our investigation Tuesday afternoon but said the following about the allegations made in the Maine complaint in an email Tuesday evening.
"This was a complaint filed by an imbalanced person. If you read the response from the Maine ethics department (sic), YOU READ IT RIGHT? …you'd see that they cleared everything. That was not my PAC nor was I the director. I was hired as a consultant/vendor."
North Carolina PACs
Years later and back in North Carolina, O'Neal has created a number of political action committees and non-profits, several of which have come under scrutiny.
One of those groups is the North Carolina Gun Rights PAC.
Campaign finance records filed with the Federal Election Commission show the PAC was created in October 2016.
The bulk of the money raised by the group in the last quarter of 2016 came from a $5,000 contribution made by the Principled Leadership Project PAC, records show.
But the group has not escaped criticism from other conservative organizations in North Carolina.
Grass Roots North Carolina, a conservative group that advocates for Second Amendment rights, has accused North Carolina Gun Rights PAC of using questionable tactics.
"For North Carolina Second Amendment supporters, there is a new game in town," Grass Roots North Carolina says in a post on its website about O'Neal's group. "Unfortunately, it seems to be a carnival game and, like most carnival games, is probably an illusion designed to empty your pockets."
O'Neal provided the following statement to WBTV in response to questions about claims made by Grass Roots North Carolina.
A Republican lawmaker, who asked that their name not be used for fear of retaliation from O'Neal and his network of groups, said he has seen little advocacy from North Carolina Gun Rights.
"At this point, they've never worked with members on any bills," the lawmaker said. "They just spend a lot of time lying and trying to raise money for themselves."
Campaign records show North Carolina Gun Rights raised little money through the end of 2016 and has paid most of the money it has raised to O'Neal.
The group raised a total of $6,467 through the end of 2016 – all of which came in after the election—and spent $4,905.88, campaign finance records show.
Of the money spent, $4,000 was paid to O'Neal's consulting firm, Tidewater Strategies, and the group paid $827.26 to Facebook for digital advertising, records show.
Months before North Carolina Gun Rights was created, an associate of O'Neal created Principled Leadership Project PAC in late September 2016, campaign finance records show.
Like North Carolina Gun Rights, Principled Leadership Project PAC has paid thousands of dollars to O'Neal's firm Tidewater Strategies.
Campaign finance records show O'Neal's firm had received $19,500 from Principled Leadership Project PAC through the end of 2016; nearly a third of the $61,008 the group raised for the year.
Criticism from Laura Ingraham
PLP PAC's first brush with controversy came in April 2017, when conservative commentator Laura Ingraham blasted the group.
In a tweet, Ingraham called Principled Leadership Project PAC 'PAC TROLLS' and told her followers "NOT to give a DIME to the PrincipledPAC run by some guy named Reilly O'Neal, supposedly for my 'Senate run.'"
O'Neal provided the following statement in response to questions from WBTV about Ingraham's tweet.
So far in 2017, the group has only filed one disclosure report with the FEC, showing it spent a little more than $14,000 to place its TV ad in the Georgia special election.
O'Neal stood by that ad in his email to WBTV on Tuesday evening.
"YES, people reject the rabid violence of the unhinged left, which has been on full display with members of the media (sic) the Alexandria shooting as self defense," he said.