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Conservative Groups Distance Themselves from Anti-Obama Text Messages

Conservative groups are distancing themselves from a Virginia communications firm that appears to be behind a flurry of unsolicited text messages criticizing President Barack Obama that were sent to Washington-area mobile phones in recent days.

Executives at the Centreville, Va.-based ccAdvertising Inc. are registered owners of at least seven websites sending the messages, according to domain registrar GoDaddy. The listings, accessed on Wednesday, labeled the sites as “suspended for spam and abuse.”

Gabriel Joseph III, president of ccAdvertising, and Jason Flanary, its chief operating officer and a failed 2011 Virginia state Senate candidate, have long been known in conservative circles for turning to aggressive messaging tactics in the final days of a campaign. Neither returned Roll Call’s email and telephone requests for comment.

“It’s disconcerting to even be associated with Jason Flanary and ccAdvertising at this point, because we terminated our business relationship with them over this very issue,” said Christopher Butler, the chief of staff for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.

The anti-tax lobby, one of several conservative groups listed as clients on the firm’s website, is known for pushing envelopes, but Americans for Tax Reform “has never done this type of unsolicited text messaging with ccAdvertising or any other vendor, and we never will,” spokesman John Kartch said in an email.

Other clients listed include Republican Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Reps. Kay Granger (Texas) and Mike Conaway (Texas), as well as the Washington Capitals, McDonald’s Inc. and conservative training organization The Leadership Institute.

David Fenner, vice president for programs at the institute, said his organization was not currently working with the ccAdvertising. He declined to comment on the current campaign.

Federal law bars unsolicited phone calls and text messages, but messages like these — sent from an email address to a mobile phone — are not explicitly outlawed.

“That puts them in somewhat of a gray area at this stage,” said Ross Buntrock, who runs the telecommunications practice at Arent Fox LLP. “The law with regard to messages coming from emails is in flux.”

The Federal Communications Commission is considering including email-to-phone text communications under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which bans unsolicited text messages to mobile phones except in the case of an emergency. The existing prohibition “covers prerecorded voice and autodialed political calls, including those sent by nonprofit organizations,” as well as text messages, according to guidance released by the agency this fall.

But comments on the proposed change are not due until Dec. 10, so voters have little recourse through the final days of this election.

In January, Revolution Messaging warned of text spamming this year in a petition filed to the FCC that cited text messages sent by ccAdvertising in the run-up to Virginia’s state legislative election in 2011.

“The practice of transmitting these unsolicited text messages on behalf of political candidates and organizations has increased exponentially in recent years and appears likely to explode in 2012,” wrote the counsel for Revolution Messaging.

The text messages set off a firestorm on Twitter and Facebook Tuesday night.

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