Reviewing Steve Ortega’s campaign finance reports I noticed that Steve Ortega has paid a company named The Forma Group almost $200,000 since 2012. So who is The Forma Group I pondered.

As with everything political in El Paso tracking down information about political linkages is like searching for the ever illusive winning lottery ticket, you know it is there but just not within your reach. For a public relations firm, The Forma Group doesn’t seem to want anyone to know anything about it.

I wonder if this is by design.

My first stop was the Internet. Their website is nothing more than three pages, one in English, the other in Spanish and a link to a “client” login page. As a technologist I was disappointed in the look and feel of the site as well as the technology driving it. It was very “old-school” not inclusive at all of today’s social-media driven technology.

The political activist in me noticed two significant things, the lack of concrete information about what it is they do and the lack of attention to detail. According to their website they are focused “solely on political and issue advocacy” without “ideology, agenda or bias”. The cynic in me immediately screamed this sounds like an agency for sale to the highest bidder. I guess that is the nature of politics, you are either in it for an agenda or you are in it for the money. My guess is that The Forma Group is in it for the money.

But is it truly a firm for sale to the highest bidder or is it serving another purpose beyond ideology?

I kept on digging looking for a better understanding of The Forma Group.

According to a 2008 presentation that The Forma Group made to the El Paso County Elections Department they described themselves as “unique because of its parceled approach to design, public affairs and political campaigns.” They added that they considered themselves to be the “only governmental affairs & design firm along the U.S. – Mexico border.” The US – Mexico nexus figures prominently in the little public information that is available about them.

The notion of serving the US/Mexico border region was curios to me because their website lists two telephone numbers, one in El Paso and the other in Spain. I still don’t see where Spain fits into this matrix. Regardless, the 2008 presentation goes on to add that their “campaign team can assemble and implement winning campaign strategies from logo to television commercials and from opposition research to victory speeches.”

But where did they come from and who are its operators. In politics, everyone has an agenda. I keep asking myself, what is their agenda? The 2008 presentation stated that they were formed in 2003.

My first stop was the County’s “doing business as” business registration records. A business concern operating in El Paso must either be a Texas Corporation, a foreign corporation authorized to operate in Texas or a “doing business as” registered entity at the County. I found the Forma Group, LLC. (20100006500)  registered at the County. Except that they were registered on October 27, 2010, rather than 2003. This registration shows it as a “corporation” with three owners; Robert Reyes, Marcus Saenz and The Forma Group, LLC.

That led me to another registration at the County for The Forma Group, this one as a sole-proprietorship that was created on August 31, 2006. In this case, this Forma Group (20060005042) is listed as owned by Robert Reyes, Jr. All of this seems like a normal process of growing a company and creating a corporation for security.

Except that none of this accounted for their statement that they started in 2003 since they weren’t registered until 2006. Maybe it is just a little creative exaggeration; after all, that is what they do for their clients.

As this was a Texas corporation I then went to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and looked them up. At first I couldn’t find them doing a normal search. They weren’t coming up. They didn’t seem to be properly registered and then I finally found out why they weren’t coming up.

They are currently suspended from transacting business in the State of Texas.

According to the Texas Comptroller’s filing; their Franchise status is; “FRANCHISE TAX INVOLUNTARILY ENDED”. According to the State of Texas, under the right to transact business in the State, Forma’s status is listed as having its “Franchise Tax Involuntarily Ended”. That, according to the State means that “The entity’s registration or certificate was ended as a result of a tax forfeiture or an administrative forfeiture by Texas Secretary of State.”

In order to be reinstated The Forma Group must “provide a tax clearance letter showing that all franchise taxes have been paid. In order to prove that they are current in their obligations, The Forma Group must provide a Tax Clearance letter, that will be issued, upon request, by the Comptroller’s office after all franchise tax reports and the appropriate signed information reports due through the date of reinstatements are filed, and all franchise tax, penalty and interest due on those reports are paid.”

As a lay-person my reading of this seems to indicate that The Forma Group has been delinquent in either paying its franchise taxes, or negligent on filing its tax reports or both. Either way, they are not properly operating in Texas as a business concern.

But my original interest was who is The Forma Group?

The officer’s listed, as of the last public information sheet they had filed with Texas, is that Ricardo Armendariz is President and Director and Robert Reyes, Jr., is Treasurer and Director. Reyes is the registered agent as well. They registered with the State on October 20, 2010.

This still doesn’t explain how they have been operating since 2003 but at least I now know who some of the players are.

According to the records I have been able to compile, the Managing Partner is Ricardo Armendariz. Armendariz is also listed with the State as President. Armendariz is the face of the company and he is a registered lobbyist in the State of Texas. Robert Reyes, or “Roberto”, according to other records is the Art Director of The Forma Group. Tony Duenez and Alex Rodriguez are part of the creative team of the company. Karla Bustamante is listed as the Public Relations specialist. And then there is Mark A. Smith. Although Mark Smith does not seem to have a direct ownership interest in The Forma Group he publically states that he and The Forma Group have “successfully managed over 25 campaigns at the local, state, and federal level” since 2000.

Smith describes himself as “possessing over twenty-years of experience dealing with the public-policy/political process at the local, state, and federal levels.” Mark Smith is the founding partner of Mark Smith Public Affairs (SPA) and states that they have worked “in a direct lobbying, advocacy, and advisory role on behalf of clients such as: Borderland Mobility Coalition; Brown McCarroll, LLP; Christi Craddick Campaign; Campaign for Primary Accountability PAC; Dewhurst for Texas; Elite Medical Transport; El Paso Tomorrow PAC; Friends of Susan Combs; Forma Group LLC; Hunt Companies, Inc.; Hunt Family; Medical Center of the Americas; People for Steve Pearce; Perry Presidential; Republican National Congressional Committee; Republican National Senatorial Committee; Romney Presidential; Justice Rebecca Simmons; Sun City Behavioral-El Paso MHMR; Texans for John Cornyn, Inc.; Texans for Lawsuit Reform; Texans for Rick Perry; Justice Don Williett, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe.”

Yea, I know that’s a mouthful but it’s his words, not mine.

Prior to forming Mark Smith Public Affairs in March of 2010, Smith worked in “government affairs” for Hunt Companies, Inc. He worked there from January 2003 to March 2010. Prior to working with Hunt, Smith worked for Texas Governor Rick Perry. In El Paso, Mark Smith worked for mayors William S. Tilney and Larry Francis, from September 1991 to November 1996.

And this final piece leads us to the funding mechanism for The Forma Group.

In 2007, Woody Hunt, principal of Hunt Companies, Inc., where Smith worked, formed the Citizens for Prosperity PAC along with J. Robert Brown, Paul Foster, Rick Francis, Harold Hahn and Ted Houghton. Hunt gave the PAC its name. According to an El Paso Inc., article by David Crowder on June 30, 2011 the PAC has decided not to give money directly to the candidates it supports, rather their contributions go directly to “The Forma Group and attorney Mark Walker”.

In other words, rather than give checks to the candidates to make their own choices, the checks are instead given to The Forma Group and Mark Walker. Why?

In the article, Bob Hoy, the PAC’s treasurer is quoted as stating that in the summer of 2011 “we’re going to rethink our (sic) plans for the future because it’s very difficult to raise money for local races unless you are somebody who has an enormous issue before City Council.” He was referring to what he described as difficulty in raising money for the PAC.

And there you have it, “It is very difficult to raise money for local races unless you are somebody who has an enormous issue before City Council”, the PAC’s treasure has stated. The only way to raise money for local races is to affect a certain political agenda.

I’m sorry but it can’t get any clearer than that. Citizens for Prosperity was founded by Hunt ostensibly to bring ethics to El Paso politics but his own treasurer states that it is difficult to raise money for local races unless there is someone with an enormous issue before the city.

Hmmm, I wonder who has an “enormous” issue before the city today. Am I the only one that sees a problem with all of this? Let’s delve a little deeper into this.

If the founding and funding members of the PAC sound familiar to you it is because they are the people who either own the team that will play in the arena being built where City Hall once stood or they are heavily and publically supporting the current, in your face, downtown redevelopment that has been so controversial to the community.

But exactly how much money has this group brought to the political table? After all, if it’s just peanuts what’s the problem?

The timeline shows that The Forma Group was established at or about the same time that Hunt and his cohorts were creating their PAC. According to the PAC’s members’ own statements the PAC was built to support the political careers of politicians they support.

In other words, they are political kingmakers. And they all agree that it’s difficult to raise money in local races unless there is a big issue at play.

The Forma Group’s first foray into the political scene seems to be “mailers” they were paid to produce for Yahara L. Gutierrez in July 2007. They then helped Jose Castillo, who ran for District Judge for District 1, in the March 2008 elections.

Then from May 2008 to October 2012, Dee Margo paid The Forma Group approximately $481,000 through his own campaign and through the “Amigos of Dee Margo” fund.

And then from July 27, 2011 to May 25, 2012, Marisa Marquez paid The Forma Group approximately $142,000.

But The Forma Group wasn’t finished yet, from August 2011 to October 2012, Naomi Gonzalez paid them approximately $22,000.

But wait, there’s more. Diane Navarrete, who ran against Theresa Caballero for the bench of District Criminal Court No. 1 in 2012, paid The Forma Group approximately $30,000 between May and July 2012.

And finally, the Texans For Lawsuit Reform PAC, a self-styled civil justice reform organization, has paid The Forma Group a little over $450,000 from January 2010 through May 2012.

During the five year period between October 2007 and October 2012, The Forma Group has received over $1.1 million in just the State races.

Currently, this year, the biggest benefactor to The Forma Group has been Steve Ortega, whose campaign was largely funded by the same people behind the baseball stadium debacle and the members of the Citizens For Prosperity PAC.

I do not believe in coincidences and I strongly believe in that for every action there is always a reaction.

According to Steve Ortega’s campaign reports he has been a client of The Forma Group since The Reuel Group was publically exposed for the selling of political “consulting” services to politicians while supposedly being an “unbiased” political pollster for the El Paso Times. Hmmm, those are nice ethical partners that Steve Ortega surrounds himself with.

In 2012; Steve Ortega paid The Forma Group $2,000 for consulting services. Then in 2013, Ortega paid The Forma Group over $197,000 for advertising expenses and consulting fees. And guess who Ortega’s largest campaign contributors are?

As always, follow the money. Who has funded The Forma Group through campaign contributions? Could it be candidates that have the same vision as those who are the “power” behind El Paso politics? More importantly, exactly what is The Forma Group’s agenda? Is it money or is it to build political dynasties, or, both?

So much money and we are to accept that it is all ethical? It is all about doing what is good for the community. Well, guess what, if you believe that then I have a 10-story building to sell you for $1. Oh yea, that’s right; there is now a hole where city hall once stood. I guess you can still pay a $1 for a non-existing building if you believe that there are benefactors paying politicians hundreds of thousands of dollars just because they are ethical politicians!

Unfortunately, I still have two lingering questions about The Forma Group unrelated to their finances. The first is that the firm portrays itself as perfectly positioned to serve a bicultural community like El Paso through its expertise and professional staff. My problem with all of this is that their website lists a phone number in Spain and the Spanish translation on their website is not Mexican. It is more Spanish but actually seems like an automated or transcribed translation of the English version. It is not native Mexican Spanish. That’s like putting a public relations firm on the Canada – US border and the English version of the website is British rather than US English. That would not be acceptable.

My second issue is the secretive nature of the firm. As a public relations firm it should be about exposure unless the public relations is about muckraking the opposition rather than giving the client exposure. Or, coupled together with its apparent lack of financial and corporate vigilance than the secrecy is more about under-handed and, or backdoor deals. That makes more sense to me.

The Forma Group is a business and it can do as it pleases as long as it pays its taxes and plays by the rules as outlined by the business rules. As for politicians who use them they should be vigilant about who it is that they do business with. A company that does not abide by the rules is not a company that an ethical politician should associate themselves with, unless ethics isn’t part of the politician’s platform.

As for the El Paso media looking into and asking the questions I have asked that, unfortunately will never happen. This is because the media knows who butters their bread, the Hunt’s, the Fosters’ and the Sanders’ that fund firms like The Forma Group whose ethics are seriously in question.

So what is The Forma Group’s agenda? That’s easy, Forma’s agenda is clear; they get paid to put people in office for those willing to pay to put someone in office. What they do after they’re in office is not Forma’s problem. Or is it?

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

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