There is a story that has received considerable attention in other parts of West Virginia but not around here. The Washington Post even ran a piece on it. It’s been dubbed “Mailgate” and it is about the recent revelations regarding the use of taxpayer funds by members of the West Virginia House of Delegates to communicate with constituents ¨C or perhaps, rather, a select group of voters.
As Hoppy Kerchival said on MetroNews recently, the perk afforded to legislators called “franking,” which came over from England, is “as old as the Republic.” Congress has always been allowed to communicate with constituents on the taxpayer dime. Franking privileges extend to the state level as well. The recent brouhaha, however, concerns timing and potential targeting.
Charleston television station WCHS posted on its website about a month ago: “Mailings from the House of Delegates have increased exponentially, and you are picking up the tab for postage…what we found was startling.”
What they found startling was that some members of the House this year spent more than 20 times what they did last year and that the aggregate was more than quadruple, having “looked at the number of letters sent out by House members from two time periods — November 2012 to April 2013 and November 2013 to [April].” They named names and every one was a Democrat.
The Post article referred to another investigation, this one by Republican consultant Rob Cornelius and credits him with naming it “Mailgate.” Cornelius made Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the documents and posted them online. I contacted him and he provided me with a list of those that had sent out more than 2,000 pieces. They are indeed all Democrats, two of whom are locals. While Delegate Ricky Moye of Raleigh County topped the list with more than 9,000 pieces, Jefferson County Delegate Tiffany Lawrence placed fifth with more than 6,000 pieces while Berkeley’s Jason Barrett placed ninth with nearly 4,000.
The reactions to the news by Democrats have been instructive. Wayne County Delegate Don Perdue said on MetroNews the flap over the mailings is “¡K much ado about nothing, as far as I’m concerned.” Business as usual. State chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, Larry Puccio called it “the perfect case of the toad calling the frog ugly.”
However, the fingerpointing by the Democrats with regard to franking has been in the direction of Republicans not in the Legislature, but in Congress. Interesting. U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito responded by asserting that her office does not target — it sends communications to all constituents, irrespective of party. Further, members of Congress are not permitted franking privileges within 90 days of an election.
According to Cornelius, the targeting aspect is especially troubling. He says that regarding the mailing lists he has already obtained, the vast majority of the “communications to constituents” went to Democrats who had voted in the last several elections — in excess of 90 percent. He adds that they show a pattern that points to the exclusion of Republicans from the mailings and that his investigation is ongoing.
West Virginia State GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said, “These mailings are illegal and unethical.” Said Lucas: “We have the state Democrat Party providing lists of frequent voters leading up to an election and those frequent voters are the only ones who received the campaign literature.”
According to Cornelius, there is reason to believe that party leadership coordinated the effort. There apparently will be ethics charges filed. Stay tuned.
Said Capito: “You’re not allowed to pick and choose, when you frank at the national level, on who you’re going to send your mail to and it appears as though the Democrats were sending mail to Democrat voters who had voted frequently…That’s a violation, in my opinion.” In response to Puccio’s statement above Capito added, “I don’t know if I’m the frog or the toad or whatever, but I don’t appreciate that.”
It’s certainly legitimate for legislators to send out newsletters to let constituents know what they are doing down in Charleston — and its legal. However, if they are targeting their mailings these legislators are either using taxpayer funds to electioneer or…they are saying to you the voter who didn’t receive a mailing that they don’t represent you. The selectivity and lack of a sense of propriety are troubling.
The franking privilege is extended to legislators to enable them to communicate with us. However, in this instance, unless you are a Democrat and it’s getting close to election time chances are you got cut out of the loop. That’s something to really ponder — a Democrat in the Legislature may not consider you to be a constituent unless you are a member of his or her party. That would be a powerful and disturbing message to send to voters.
— Elliot Simon writes
from Harpers Ferry