Representatives for Mark Kelly, a top Democratic recruit for a competitive 2020 Senate seat in Arizona, recently asked a public university in Ohio not to disclose his speaking fee for a 2018 visit.
Youngstown State initially obliged, blacking out how much Kelly and his wife — Gabrielle Giffords, a former member of Congress and gun control advocate who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2011 shooting — commanded for their joint appearance, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The way Kelly’s team at a speakers agency handled the matter illustrates how paid speeches increasingly trip up political candidates, especially Democrats who run on progressive messages of economic equality. Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees dogged her in her 2016 run for president. Former vice president Joe Biden has come under fire for accepting $200,000 last year to speak at a Michigan event where he offered kind words about a Republican locked in a tough reelection race.
Kelly’s paid speeches are already an issue in his race. Last week, after questions from CNN, Kelly refunded $55,000 for a 2018 speech in the United Arab Emirates. And the Intercept, a news site active on the political left, has highlighted Kelly’s past speaking fees at corporate events, in the context of his pledge not to accept corporate PAC money for his campaign.
America Rising, a political action committee that conducts opposition research for Republicans, requested the Kelly contract with Youngstown State last month, not long after the astronaut and Navy veteran declared his Senate candidacy. YSU responded last week but redacted all references to Kelly and Gifford’s fees, prompting follow-up questions from an America Rising attorney.
“Upon receiving your public records request, we provided Mr. Kelly with an opportunity to assert whether any information within the contract qualifies as a trade secret exempt from disclosure as a record under Ohio law,” a YSU lawyer replied, referencing an attached contract rider that demanded confidentiality unless information was required to be disclosed by law.
“Mr. Kelly responded to YSU and claimed that his speaker fee is a trade secret and exempt from disclosure under Ohio law,” Gregory Morgione, the university’s lawyer, added.
A Kelly campaign official said Kelly did not directly authorize the redaction and that the request was handled by Keppler Speakers, which brokered the contract with YSU. Pressed on the matter this week by BuzzFeed News, YSU officials agreed to provide an unredacted copy of the contract, revealing a $65,000 fee, inclusive of all expenses for Keppler and for Kelly and Giffords. Kelly eventually would have had to disclose his share of the fee — about $47,000, according to his campaign — as part of a personal financial statement required of candidates for federal office.
“After further review of the public records requests that we received regarding the Kelly/Giffords appearance, and further discussions with Kelly/Giffords’ representatives, we are releasing the contract with no redaction,” said Ron Cole, a spokesperson for the university.
Jim Keppler, who chairs the speakers bureau, told BuzzFeed News that “communication regarding the release of the contract was with us,” not Kelly.
“It is standard practice for a group like ours to protect the confidentiality of our fee structures,” said Keppler, who added that the $65,000 also covered his agency’s fee, as well as travel and lodging expenses for Kelly, Giffords, and their aides and nurses.
America Rising, in its communications with YSU, noted that the university was unique, even in Ohio, in refusing to disclose Kelly’s payments.
“It raises questions about how much voters can trust him,” Alex Wilkes, a senior vice president for America Rising, told BuzzFeed News of the preference to keep Kelly’s YSU speaking fee secret. “It appears he only returned the [$55,000] from the UAE after the press asked about it, and now he’s trying to hide how much money he is making from taxpayer-funded universities.”
Wilkes said her organization is waiting on requests to other public colleges and universities, but so far has seen Kelly contracts range from $25,000 to $48,000. A joint appearance at the University of Akron, not far from Youngstown, cost $80,000, she said.
Rep. Ruben Gallego passed on a Senate bid this week, clearing Kelly’s path in a Democratic primary for the right to challenge Sen. Martha McSally, the Republican appointed earlier this year to the late John McCain’s seat. Kelly’s high profile from his days with NASA — as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station to his advocacy for gun control after Giffords survived a deadly mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona — made him a coveted candidate.
“We need better background checks. Ninety-two percent of Americans favor that,” Kelly said during his remarks at YSU last year, according to a report from the Youngstown Vindicator. “In the last decade we’ve had 10 of the 20 worst mass shootings in our country’s history.”
The YSU contract called for informal meetings with students and media, a lecture and Q&A session, and book signing. The rider, in addition to demanding confidentiality unless required by law, specified that Giffords would make only brief remarks.
Otherwise modest requests included “one classic Coke in Green Room for Kelly” and green tea for Giffords.