There have been questions sporadically raised about Old Towne Media LLC(OTM), presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ primary ad-buying agency.
As of the most recent filing month, Sanders’ campaign committee, Bernie 2016, has purchased a total of $44,428,881.00 through OTM, and after what will likely be massive disbursements this month, that number will rise dramatically.
It is not unusual for a candidate to purchase their ads through an ad agency. In fact, this is standard practice — fellow contender Hillary Clinton utilizes ad giant GMMB.
What is unusual is that no one seems to know who Old Towne Media is and how a totally unknown firm came into possession of the most lucrative account in presidential politics. They have, almost overnight, become, per opensecrets.org, one of the largest vendors this cycle.
(A note on LLCs: they are perfectly legal business entities, and are often used as passthrough entities that are not subject to taxation like corporations would be.)
So, Who Exactly is Behind Old Towne Media, LLC?
As confirmed by an Iowa ad buy, OTM is registered in Alexandria, Virginia, at a private residence to a registered agent, Mr. David Hartig. His name is also present on many of OTM/Bernie 2016 ad buys, along with the names Shelli and Heather Hartig.
This is the first clue, as while searches of David and Shelli Hartig turn up next to no online presence, a search of Heather Hartig turned up a sparseLinkedIn page, which included an entry as her having interned at the now defunct Alexandria, Virginia ad firm Abar Hutton. Abar Hutton was a largead-buying agency from 1995 to 2012, when it merged with Georgia-based LUC Partners to form a new agency, Canal Partners Media, which as of 2014 had an enormous client list. Their biography can be found on their website, along with the names of their partners.
Note Abar Hutton partners Barbara Abar and Shelli Hutton. At this point, it became apparent that Shelli Hartig and Shelli Hutton are in fact one and the same, and that Shelli Hutton-Hartig uses her married name on her work with Old Towne Media, LLC while using her maiden name professionally with Canal Media Partners, as evidenced by this ad buy from last month. Why would Shelli Hutton-Hartig use different names for different ad buying agencies?
Tad Devine, Abar Hutton, and a Senate Race
Biographical information about Barbara Abar found online reveals that both she and Shelli Hutton worked with current Sanders strategist Tad Devine of Devine Mulvey Longabaugh for two years in the 1990s at the ad-buying agency Doak, Shrum & Associates before that firm dissolved. Devine and Shrum subsequently started their own firm, and Abar Hutton was born.
A LexisNexus search also turned up a Roll Call article from 2006 in which then-Representative Sanders’ Republican opponent makes allegations of corruption involving Jane Sanders compensation in previous political campaigns. Abar Hutton is named as the agency with which Jane Sanders placed an ad through. Barbara Abar’s name has also appeared on ad buys for Old Towne Media, LLC this cycle.
This leads to the obvious question — why is Canal Media Partners not directly handling the Bernie 2016 account?
Canal Media Partners’ disclosed accounts last cycle (2013–2014) totalled $44,949,240. However, this cycle, they have pulled in a paltry $323,625 in business, per opensecrets.org, though three of their five clients have ties to the Sanders campaign: MoveOn.org, the Communication Workers of America, and Ohio Senate candidate P.G. Sittenfeld, who is the only other client of Old Towne Media, LLC.
Hillary Clinton’s ad buying agency, GMMB, does not have any other major accounts this cycle, and claims on its website to have 25 specialists working in its political campaigns division. This number likely does not include a presumably significant number of supporting staff. It seems improbable that there are only four people (the Hartigs and Abar) working on an account that dwarves Clinton’s business with GMMB.
So, Why Old Towne Media, LLC?
It is hard to say.
Canal Media Partners and its predecessor firms have extensive histories with clients (elected Democrats) that Sanders’ supporters might find unsavory. On the flip side, Canal Media Partners, as a Democratic ad agency, will rely on these clients, most of whom have lined up behind Hillary Clinton, for business after the Sanders campaign comes to end.
Inquiries by journalists into the ownership/management have gone unanswered by both OTM and Bernie 2016. Bernie 2016 does not attempt to hide any of their other major vendors, and it is unclear why OTM exists other than to hide either Shelli Hutton-Hartig and/or Canal Media Partners’ involvement as the primary ad-buyer for Bernie 2016, and those operating OTM appear to have taken steps to confuse and mislead anyone attempting to track them down. Tax evasion doesn’t seem particularly likely, and what Bernie 2016’s motive for concealing information about this specific vendor remains a mystery. Ad buys confirm that OTM collects a 15% commission on ad buys, so the firm has made in excess of 7 million dollars in commission from the Bernie 2016 account since Senator Sanders announced his candidacy.
The exact purpose of this labyrinthine arrangement isn’t immediately apparent, but one thing is clear — there’s an awful lot of money involved.