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WASHINGTON – When Republican members of Congress need literature to send out to constituents on their doings in office, dozens turn to a Utah firm that churns out slick, full-color mailers at taxpayer expense.

When they need political mailers designed to get them re-elected, some of them turn to the same people.

In theory, policy and politics are separate enterprises in Washington. In practice, they are joined at the hip.


EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look at how Washington works behind the scenes.


The line between them may be blurred more than usual in the work done by sister companies with the same owners who produce franked constituent mail paid by the government, then switch to election propaganda paid by campaigns, just as an industrial plant retools its assembly line to meet changing demand.

Utah-based Arena Communications produces political direct mail for a number of House members as well as the national Republican Party and other GOP candidates. Its sister company, the Franking Group, has collected millions of federal dollars for design and printing work for dozens of Republican House members, many of them the same as its political clients.

The two companies' ties could hardly be tighter; both are owned by the same three businessmen, and they share a warehouse in Salt Lake City. And it's often hard to distinguish between the polished mailers printed on the taxpayers' dime and the re-election circulars produced and paid from political contributions.

House rules allow lawmakers to send federally financed mass mailings to their constituents as long as they're not intended to help in a re-election campaign or have some other partisan purpose.

"It only becomes tougher for lawmakers to insist there's no connection between official mail and their campaigns when the same mailing firm wears both hats," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.

The owners say they hold no party posts, do not coordinate non-political work with campaign organizations and see no legal or ethical problems with how they operate.

They say their companies do their jobs separately, and note that all government-financed mailings are reviewed by a bipartisan House commission to ensure they aren't political.

Out of legal necessity, the Franking Group becomes virtually inactive at the height of the campaign season. The House bars federally financed constituent mailings within 90 days of an election, and that's when lawmakers typically shift to their political campaigns to send out their mailings.

"The Franking Group basically goes dark as we focus on — as we then put on our hats and work on — the political world," said David Jacobs, its managing partner and co-owner. He, Peter Valcarce and James Ohman jointly own the companies.

It's only natural, they say, to work solely for members of one party.

"That strategy obviously reflects the nature of the House," said Valcarce, who more than a decade ago served briefly as an aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., and soon helped found the Franking Group. "Staffers pick sides. Consultants pick sides. Everybody at one point has to pick a side."

The Franking Group's website identifies 64 House Republicans who have been clients and says there have been many more. House records show the firm was paid slightly more than $4 million by the government during the 12-month period ended in June for work done on behalf of 60 House Republicans — about a third of the chamber's GOP membership.

Not only is the Franking Group the dominant direct-mail vendor for taxpayer-financed mailings directed by Republicans, it easily outpaces leading Democratic firms, according to a review of House records by The Associated Press.

The leading Democratic-oriented vendor received about $1.2 million in the same 12-month period. That company, Constituent Communication LLC, also has ties to a political direct-mail firm.

Postal Service records show taxpayer-financed mailings from the Franking Group wind up in mail boxes all over the nation. For example, a Nov. 6 shipment of 69 containers with 100,253 pieces of mail went to Indiana for GOP Rep. Dan Burton.

Messages touted "Dan Burton's Fall Job Fair...Help get Indiana working again!" Such boosterism is common to the franked mail of members of both parties as lawmakers pitch their events, policies — and themselves — without overtly political salesmanship.

At least 19 of the Republicans named on the Franking Group website as clients also hired Arena Communications, typically for campaign mailings, in one or more of the election cycles since 2004, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Since 2001, Arena Communications has done more than $5.4 million in work on behalf of Republican House candidates, according to the FEC. Other FEC records show the company was a major provider of millions of dollars worth of direct mail for George W. Bush's last presidential campaign in 2004, as well as handling business for the national party and its House campaign arm. "
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