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LAKE RIDGE, Va. — Wedged between a nail salon and a pizza shop in a strip mall about 25 miles south of Washington, D.C., is a postal supply store where a small brass mailbox sits stuffed with unopened envelopes.

It’s the unlikely home of one of the country’s most mysterious political hit squads.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America once had offices in a nearby office park, but it abandoned them more than a year ago. It hasn’t filed required IRS reports in two years, and its leaders, once visible on television and in congressional hearings, have all but vanished.

But the nonprofit that calls itself “the nation’s largest coalition of law enforcement professionals, crime victims and concerned citizens” still has teeth. It has succeeded in helping knock out 12 state-level candidates in 14 years, including an Arkansas judicial candidate last year. In doing so, the group helped launch the current governors of Texas and Nevada to their stepping-stone positions as state attorneys general.

The LEAA uses brute tactics — parachuting into otherwise small-dollar races close to the end and buying up TV ads that accuse candidates of siding with “baby killers” and sexual predators.

“They can put out some sort of horrible attack ad on any judges that they want and really influence an election with a fairly small amount of money,” former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz said. “They’re buying seats on supreme courts in states all around the country.”

Diaz knows. He’s among those who have been pushed out of office after being targeted by the LEAA, which spent about $660,000 in the last two weeks of his 2008 campaign running ads linking him to rapists and murderers.

“When a 6-month-old child was raped and murdered, Supreme Court Justice Diaz was the only one voting for the child’s killer,” the ad’s two announcers said. “An elderly woman kidnapped, beaten and raped: Diaz, the only one voting for the rapist.”

How the LEAA pays for the campaigns is a mystery that political opponents, state officials and advocacy groups have fought unsuccessfully for years to unravel. The group, which has ties to the National Rifle Association but no public connections to official law enforcement agencies, has repeatedly gone to court to fend off such efforts. A dispute over whether the group violated Texas campaign laws is expected to wrap up this month, but the group’s donor list has so far remained a closely guarded secret.