DeBerry claims attorney Thomas J. Henry, head of ad agency behind ‘dark money’ attack ads in county judge race

Republican candidate for county judge says allegations based on “multiple sources;” ad agency head denies connection

San Antonio – With no proof but plenty of outrage, the Republican candidate for Bexar County judge accused personal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry and the head of the advertising agency he uses of being behind attack ads targeting her.

Trish DeBerry, a former county commissioner and public relations specialist, cited “multiple sources” who she said tied Henry and Bob Wills, the head of the PM Group, to the “dark money” sponsor of recent television attack ads against her, Friends of Bexar County LLC.

DeBerry also accused the Democratic candidate Peter Sakai of “lying” about not having anything to do with the negative ad campaign.

Online records from Delaware, the state in which DeBerry said the group was formed, show a “Friends of Bexar LLC” was formed on Sep. 19 - the same day Federal Communications Commission records show it started contracting with San Antonio television stations for advertising time. The actual ads list the name of the group as “Friends of Bexar County, LLC.”

The group was the subject of a Sep. 24 San Antonio Express News article, which did not determine who was behind its funding.

DeBerry called the ads Friends of Bexar County sponsored “baseless” and “unwarranted” attacks. However, she offered no hard evidence that tied Henry or Wills to either the group or the ads.

I can’t provide you formal documentation today. All I can do is say we’re filing an ethics complaint. The A.G. is going to investigate. Hopefully, the D.A. is going to investigate,” DeBerry said.

Henry is well-known in San Antonio for his ubiquitous advertisements, which the PM Group creates and buys time and space for in various media.

Meanwhile, FCC records show it was a Connecticut-based media buying company, ICON International, that purchased the spots for “Friends of Bexar LLC” at the four major English-language news stations: KSAT, KENS, WOAI, and KABB.

The paperwork also lists Juli Branson, a Dallas area marketing and public relations advisor, as Friends of Bexar LLC’s executive director. Attempts to reach her by phone Monday were unsuccessful.

DeBerry also implied Henry’s alleged involvement in the attack ads had to do with her gender. She pointed to his financial backing of Nico LaHood in the 2014 Bexar County District Attorney’s race against incumbent Susan Reed as an example of his “track record.”

“So you have to ask yourself the question, what does he have against women? I’m not sure about that - particularly strong women,” DeBerry said.

Wills quickly responded to DeBerry’s claims with his own news conference just three hours later Monday, in the same spot in front of the Bexar County Courthouse.

Although Wills said he is supporting Sakai in the judge’s race, he vehemently denied any connection to Friends of Bexar County and said he didn’t know who was behind it either. He also said he did not know Branson or the agent from ICON International who had bought the ad time.

“This is nothing more than a political stunt to bring attention to her (DeBerry) campaign that is far, far behind. The truth is, she wants to be Bexar County judge, but she is acting like a desperate candidate, praying for a miracle,” Wills said.

A spokesman for Henry’s law firm told KSAT via text that Henry “will wrap his head around today’s press conference and respond in a day or two.”

Asked Monday whether he knew of any connection Henry may have had to Friends of Bexar County, Wills told reporters, “I can say categorically he does not have any connections because any time Mr. Henry has given money to place to support a campaign, he would route it through us.”

Sakai posted a statement to Facebook on Sep. 26, two days after the original Express-News story, denying having anything to do with the negative ad campaign.

DeBerry wasn’t buying Sakai’s assurances though on Monday.

“I do think he’s lying. I mean, it’s one thing to post something on social media and like I said, hide behind the facts. The facts are very clear where we’re at,” DeBerry said when asked about Sakai’s comments.

She called on Sakai Monday to “disavow” and “condemn” the ads.

In a statement sent through his campaign manager on Monday, Sakai reiterated his commitment to running a positive campaign. He also pointed to DeBerry’s own admission on Monday that she did not have any documentation linking Sakai to the negative ad campaign.

“As a judge for 26 years and a firm believer in the “Rule of Law”, (sic) it is critical to have concrete evidence when making an allegation,” Sakai wrote.

DeBerry and Sakai are vying to replace Judge Nelson Wolff, who is stepping down at the end of his term. The election is on Nov. 8, and early voting runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 4.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Misael started at KSAT-TV as a photojournalist in 1987.