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CHICAGO — A copy of the East Central Reporter landed in select mailboxes in 2016 with the look of a typical local newspaper.

It had a community calendar. It listed high school sports statistics. And it contained an article about a statehouse candidate's pitch to voters.

But was that story news? Or was it a novel form of political advertising?

Recently obtained documents and interviews show that an organization called Think Freely Media helped fund the operation that produced the article for the East Central Reporter's website. As a nonprofit, Think Freely is forbidden by federal law from engaging in politics, and it has described the articles it funded as news.

But State Board of Elections records also show a political committee, Liberty Principles, paid the same private company to publish the story in a print newspaper and mail it. That group, which state law says must spend its money on politicking, has labeled such content political ads.

What these organizations have in common is one of the state's most visible and controversial political figures, Dan Proft. Though Proft is known for backing conservative candidates for office through Liberty Principles, including 101st District state House candidate Dan Caulkins, recent tax, business and campaign filings illuminate how other organizations with ties to Proft helped spread his political views through publications that showcase candidates he supports.

It's a situation that encompasses not only ethical questions about a modern tool of Illinois political warfare but also the national discussion over what constitutes "fake news."

Since 2015, thousands of articles have been published in more than two dozen print and online publications tied to Proft, who in addition to heading Liberty Principles has served as a consultant to Think Freely Media.

The first articles were produced by a firm run by media entrepreneur Brian Timpone, a longtime friend of Proft's who has frequently discussed Illinois politics as a guest on Proft's morning radio show. Timpone's firm, called Newsinator, also has a history of doing paid political work and offers marketing services to companies under the name Interactive Content Services.

After Proft's political committee paid Newsinator in 2016 to mail print versions of some publications to voters, the state elections board ordered Liberty Principles to identify such materials as political advertising more clearly in the future.

But regulators did not impose fines, and since then, records and interviews show, Proft has doubled down on his media venture by teaming with Timpone to start a new private company, Local Government Information Services, that now runs the websites and publications created by Newsinator.

The new firm lists 29 websites it controls and 11 print publications, with names ranging from the Grundy Reporter to the North Cook News. The sites typically mix community calendars and local sports coverage, largely computer-generated, with articles that range from statistical dives into local government spending to stories that feature candidates whom Proft's political committee has supported.

The publications' emergence over the past three years has drawn a range of critics, including Proft's political opponents in both parties as well as journalists who have worked for traditional news organizations.

Among them is Charlie Wheeler, a former longtime Chicago Sun-Times reporter who now directs the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

"They purport to be newspapers, but in my judgment they don't subscribe to the tenets of traditional journalism. They do not provide balanced coverage," Wheeler said.

Different views of news

Timpone said his publications could be compared to the journalism model employed in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, in which writers reported topics from clearly identified political points of view. And Timpone said the mainstream media skews liberal, regardless of stated intentions.

"I'm a conservative Republican. I don't hide from it, and I never will," said Timpone, a former TV reporter who also spent time as a Republican statehouse aide. "You can call me biased. You can call me one-sided. ... I just don't lie about it. I try to be fair in my coverage."

Beyond offering a "pro-taxpayer" perspective, Timpone said, the articles are meant to be produced quickly — often written with just one side, often quoting from press releases or other media reports. It's how Timpone said consumers want to digest news now.

Proft declined to answer specific questions, but in an email he said the financial transactions were all disclosed and transparent. He questioned the motives of "cultural Marxists at the Tribune," who he said are taking part in unfair, "thinly veiled political attacks" against him because the Tribune doesn't want "conservative perspectives" to emerge or conservative candidates to be elected.

"This forthcoming Tribune tale will be little more than leftist propaganda," Proft said in the email.

Timpone also criticized the Chicago Tribune after it broke ties with him in 2012. A firm of Timpone's called Journatic once used database mining and low-cost freelance writers to create hyperlocal news stories for the Tribune until complaints emerged of plagiarism and faked bylines. Timpone said those complaints were overblown.

The firm, now known as Locality Labs, is credited with providing much of the content for Timpone and Proft's publications since the pair's for-profit firm took over management of the news operation.

In 2016, Timpone's Newsinator produced the article in the East Central Reporter that featured one of Proft's favored candidates, Reggie Phillips. The article's only mention of his opponent in the Republican primary, Jonathan Kaye, was a quote from Phillips saying Kaye lacked "the experience or trust" to do the job. Phillips went on to win the primary and general election.

After Phillips chose to retire, Proft's political committee spent more than $100,000 to secure a win in the 2018 primary for its preferred candidate to succeed him, Chris Miller. Meanwhile, one of Proft's publications wrote extensively about Miller and not the other candidate, records show.

Kaye, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Phillips in 2016, told the Tribune he believes the articles are part of a "shell game" of connected groups used by wealthy Chicago-area ultraconservatives to win legislative seats Downstate.

"Newsinator and journalism, now that's funny," Kaye said sarcastically. The firm "was just another part of the shell game to make it look like an arm's-length arrangement. It was the same people doing the same thing for the same purpose."

Funding a network

A few years after the Tribune broke ties with Journatic, Timpone still saw a void in the market for local news and wanted to fill it, he said. So he turned to a longtime friend, John Tillman.

Tillman is credited with building up the Illinois Policy Institute, which describes itself as a think tank and is backed largely by wealthy conservatives like Lake Forest businessman Richard Uihlein. Gov. Bruce Rauner was also among the biggest donors until he fell out of favor a year ago amid complaints he wasn't conservative enough. Proft has served as one of the institute's senior fellows.

Tillman and his allies have long complained that traditional media has a liberal bias. His think tank created a news operation of its own, the nonprofit Illinois News Network, that offers free coverage of state government to traditional media outlets. They call the content balanced; critics call it biased.

Tillman also created Think Freely Media with the aim of touting the "benefits of limited government," according to its IRS filing. In August 2015, the nonprofit began funding Timpone's Newsinator. Tax filings show that first round of cash amounted to $346,660.

Think Freely Media's president, Eric Tubbs, told the Tribune the organization chose to work with Timpone's company on "policy-focused, localized news content." Tillman did not respond to questions, and his office said he was out of the country.

Records show that on Aug. 21, 2015, six websites were registered with the domain service GoDaddy at the same time, including the Lake County Gazette, McHenry Times, Kankakee Times and North Cook News. To cover St. Louis' eastern suburbs, there was the Metro East Sun. For Champaign-Urbana, the Chambana Sun.

They joined the DuPage Policy Journal, which Timpone said Newsinator had started earlier as a prototype.

Creating news content isn't Newsinator's only stated business. State and court records show the firm also has helped candidates establish websites, monitor what's being said about them on the internet and advise what to do about it. Under another name, Interactive Content Services, the company also produces articles for paying clients, who get to approve what's written. The content is then posted on social media and specially created websites -- which Timpone said are separate from his news ventures.

"Quick 5-10 min interviews are all that's needed to get a feature length story published about your business," according to the company's website.

Timpone said the cash from Think Freely Media — as well as money from others he declined to name — soon spurred the creation of additional websites, including the East Central Reporter, that targeted areas east of Interstate 57 between Champaign and Effingham.

Those sites produce a wide range of content, he said. As examples, Timpone pointed to one report exploring how many lawmakers advocating for public schools went to private schools and another that questioned the pay and benefits packages of West Chicago teachers who were threatening to strike.

Timpone said he did not seek or need approval from the nonprofit of what was written, and he said no content his company produced with nonprofit money was intended for political purposes. Tubbs of Think Freely Media agreed.

"None of the content that was funded by TFM was political or electioneering in nature. To imply otherwise would be wrong," Tubbs wrote.

But one group did say otherwise: Proft's political committee, Liberty Principles.

An 'electioneering' paper

The political committee, started in 2012, is one of many ventures for Proft, a former Republican statehouse staffer, Cicero spokesman, public relations entrepreneur and gubernatorial candidate. By 2016, he was hosting a morning talk radio show with side gigs running Liberty Principles and a consulting firm that was paid roughly $100,000 a year by Think Freely.

Liberty Principles is a type of political organization called an "independent expenditure committee." Unlike a traditional political action committee or PAC, it can accept unlimited donations. In 2016, Liberty Principles spent more than $5 million on radio ads, TV ads, consultants and phone banks to support eight candidates for statehouse seats.

Of that, $195,434 was spent on behalf of the candidates for what Proft's committee described in state filings as newspaper advertising. The committee later told state elections officials that the money was paid to Newsinator to create, print and mail newspapers with articles about the eight candidates.

(Records show the newspapers were mailed through Tribune Direct Marketing, a division of the Chicago Tribune's parent company, Tronc, that offers direct mailing services to marketers.)

Among the articles was the one about Phillips' re-election bid, which prompted a complaint from Kaye to the state elections board.

Three other complaints followed, all arguing that the political committee's paid reporters improperly coordinated with the candidates by interviewing them and that, in any case, the law prohibited the committee from sending out such mailings because they weren't explicitly labeled as political advertising mailers.

The lawyer representing Liberty Principles, Christine Svenson, argued to elections officials that, although Timpone's company controlled the content of the articles, the newspapers were a political mailing.

"She stated that the newspapers are in fact electioneering communications, as they expressly advocate for or against candidates even though the articles primarily don't contain language saying 'vote for, elect or vote against,'" an elections board hearing officer recounted in a May 2016 report. "She believes on the face of the articles it is clear that they are expressly advocating for particular candidates."

In response to Tribune questions, however, Timpone and Tubbs said Proft's political committee got it wrong.

Timpone said the articles that appeared in the newspapers had already been published online with funding from Think Freely Media and were not political. The money from the political committee, Timpone told the Tribune, covered the cost of producing and mailing actual newspapers, which carried the same names as the websites funded by the nonprofit.

The content complies with legal requirements for nonprofits and "TFM is not responsible for how a PAC uses it, characterizes it or otherwise mischaracterizes it as Ms. Svenson did," Tubbs wrote in an email.

Svenson, now a Republican candidate for Cook County judge, declined to say whether she still believes the content was political.

New company takes over

Two years ago, elections board officials determined the complaints about the newspapers were filed on "justifiable grounds" but closed three of the four cases without holding a public hearing. (The other was dropped by the person who filed it.)

One reason the officials cited for closing the cases was that Illinois had not written precise enough rules to govern independent expenditure committees like Liberty Principles. No fines were issued -- and in two years since, no new rules have been written.

The board did order Liberty Principles to be more explicit next time it published something so people knew they were reading a political ad.

Instead, Proft formed a new company called Local Government Information Services before the 2016 general election, state records show. Although Timpone is not listed in state records as a company official, Timpone said he partnered with Proft on the new for-profit venture and transferred over the websites he had originally created with Newsinator.

There are now even more websites, 29 in all. The firm says it converts articles from 11 of the sites into print newspapers.

Timpone said there are differences between the news operation begun by Newsinator and the one run by Local Government Information Services, which is known by its initials. For one, LGIS is seeking subscribers to support the publications, along with investors Timpone would not name. Newsinator is no longer mentioned as a content provider; another Timpone firm called Locality Labs — sometimes referred to as Local Labs — is credited with content.

State records show that the new firm's listed business agent is Svenson, the lawyer who previously argued to elections officials that the newspapers produced by Proft's political committee were political.

In certain areas, Timpone said, free papers are mailed to households where people have voted in past elections. He said the editions aren't being sent in an attempt to sway votes, but rather as a free sample in the hope that a reader interested in elections will pick up a copy and enjoy the edition so much that he or she subscribes.

The majority of the 11 print papers list coverage areas where Proft's political committee endorsed specific candidates in the 2018 primary election, the Tribune found. Timpone said there's no connection.

In last month's primary, state records show, Liberty Principles spent more than $100,000 on Miller, its preferred candidate in the House's 110th District race. An internet search shows LGIS' East Central Reporter featured Miller in 15 articles before the election -- including one that complimented a TV ad that Liberty Principles had just produced.

Miller, who defeated Terry Davis by 30 percentage points, did not respond to Tribune attempts to reach him for comment.

Before the primary, just one of the 15 articles mentioned Davis by name, and Davis was not quoted in any of them. Timpone said he suspects that is because Davis never sent a press release. Davis said no reporter from that paper ever called him.

Timpone said the coverage had nothing to do with helping Proft's favored candidate. "Liberty Principles PAC is Liberty Principles PAC. LGIS is LGIS. Free speech is free speech," he said.

Davis said someone would have to be "pretty naive" to not see the connections.

"I don't think these people are stupid," Davis said. "I believe they know what the laws are and how they can get around them."

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