Candidates targeted by EPFF mailer file cease and desist letter
CHARLES TOWN — Jefferson County is seeing an unprecedented level of spending by political action committees in legislative races the week before the Nov. 4 election.
Nearly $70,000 has been spent by PACs in local delegate and Senate races in the run-up to election day. A considerable majority of the spending – more than $46,000 – has been on negative mailers launched by pro-Republican groups, with another $12,500 being spent on ads supporting conservatives. Only $11,000 has been spent by pro-Democrat PACs, all of which has been spent on positive mail campaigns.
The most recent set of “independent expenditures,” as ads bought by PACs are called, has been by GOPAC, a national Republican Party group, which reported Saturday that it would be spending more than $12,500 each on ads attacking Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, and on ads supporting Paul Espinosa, a Republican.
The largest set of independent expenditures – at nearly $30,000, all of which was spent on attacks – was made by the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund, a PAC run by area resident Suzanne Morgan. The Freedom Fund reported Thursday that it was spending nearly $8,500 in direct mail attacks on Lawrence, almost $7,500 in attacks on Democratic candidate John Maxey, and about $4,000 each on state Sen. Herb Snyder and legislative candidates Stephen Skinner and Donn Marshall.
The candidates targeted in the campaign have recently sent a cease and desist letter to Morgan alleging that she had failed to file independent expenditure disclosures in a timely manner and that the ads were therefore illegal.
The letter alleges the Freedom Fund is coordinating its ads with ads launched by the state Republican Legislative Committee and the West Virginia House PAC without disclosing the coordination. The letter threatens legal action against both the Freedom Fund and Morgan individually.
Records show all three PACs contracted Red Maverick Media – a conservative political consulting firm with offices in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maine – to build its attack mailers.
Morgan says the intent of the ads was for “educating the voters.”
The Freedom Fund ads urge voters to tell each of the candidates that “we’ve had enough of these harmful votes,” and points voters to Senate Bill 608, a proposal from the 2011 legislative session that would have raised a variety of fees charged by the Department of Motor Vehicles for registration, for license renewals and for insurance companies to obtain driving records.
The ads state that license fees have been doubled and license renewal fees have been tripled under Senate Bill 608, but fails to mention the bill — which was approved by both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, and would have increased registration fees from $28.50 per year to $40 and license five-year renewal fees from $12.50 to $32.50 — was never enacted. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill in March 2011, saying that it violated the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it forced in-state companies to pay higher fees than out-of-state companies and because he was opposed to raising fees in times of financial stress.
Neither Skinner, Maxey nor Marshall voted to increase DMV fees because none of them were serving in the Legislature at the time.
Skinner said the ads mislead voters by implying that the three voted for the increase.
“It is designed to mislead the voters into believing something that didn’t happen,” Skinner said. “I didn’t vote on anything, period. I couldn’t have. I’ve never had the opportunity to vote (on legislation).”
Morgan denied that she was trying to trick voters, saying that “there was no intention to be misleading.” Even though three of those targeted did not vote for the bill and DMV feess have not gone up, she says what is important is that “Democrats still voted to increase DMV fees.”
Lawrence and Snyder did vote for the bill.
Snyder said he supported it because the DMV had not increased its fees for around 20 years and so was drastically out of step with other states. He said all of the monies raised would have gone for road maintenance, which he said the state should be spending money on.
Lawrence said she objected to being called an “extreme liberal” in the mailer directed at her.
“I believe that anyone who knows my voting record … would label me a very conservative Democrat,” she said.
The ad attacking Lawrence also accuses her of voting to implement a portion of Obamacare, but she points out that the Affordable Care Act mandates that states create health care exchanges and that the federal government would impose one on the state if the Legislature had not created its own.
“I am in favor of state and local control on all issues,” Lawrence said.
The ad also accuses her of supporting a “cap and trade” bill that would lead to job losses and increased energy costs. Lawrence said both the coal industry and the United Mine Workers supported the bill.
“I was appalled that these type of negative tactics are being brought to Jefferson County to attack our local legislators,” Lawrence said.
The Freedom Fund was founded by Attorney General candidate Patrick Morrisey and state Senate candidate Jim Ruland, both Republican challengers in 2011.
Both Morrisey and Ruland have denied any association with the ads and have denounced their content.
“Let me be clear,” Morrisey wrote in an email. “I am very disappointed with these ads, as that was not the original intent behind the organization. This is the last thing I would have wanted and hope that any future ads produced are done much better.”
Ruland said he never had any discussion with anyone about using the fund for negative advertising.
“I am frustrated to tears that the EPFF has chosen to go this route, and to do so in such a ham-handed manner,” he said.
The Freedom Fund raised the majority of its cash in a fundraising drive around October 2011 when it held a fundraiser at the Bavarian Inn with appearances by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Republican gubernatorial challenger Bill Maloney that netted $15,245. At around the same time the group raised at least $6,500 from out-of-state donors, mostly from New Jersey and Washington, D.C., several of whom worked for corporate law and lobbying firms Morrisey had formerly been employed with.
As a 527 political action committee, the Freedom Fund is legally barred from any coordination with the campaign of any candidate.
Ruland said the original intent of the group was not to create attack ads but to help Republican candidates get their campaigns started.
“Once I knew I was running and Patrick (Morrisey) knew he was running, we knew we had to dis-involve ourselves from the (Freedom Fund). All the money we raised through the time we controlled it was raised for the purpose of helping candidates, largely through the measure of logistics and infrastructure stuff.
“That was the whole motivation for starting the thing, and that was we went around telling the people who donated. So the idea was never to do attack ads or whatever. It was all based on helping all candidates with the central things that a party would do for their candidates.”
Snyder and Skinner said they blame Morrisey and Ruland for the last-minute attack mailers.
“They built the cannon,” Snyder said. “They loaded the cannon, and then they said, ‘I don’t have anything to do with this if you want to fire it.’ I hold them both responsible for this.”
He said the negative mailers were unprecedented in the 22 years he had been running for office in Jefferson County.
“Clearly, the intent was to do this, to hide behind a faceless (political action committee),” Snyder said. “I’ve never seen anything like this locally that a group has used every penny of their money for negative advertising against Democratic candidates. That’s why its important for the voters to know who is behind the veil, and it is all public knowledge.
“To step away now and say that they have nothing to do with it, I think is nothing short of cowardly,” Snyder said.
Ruland said Snyder’s response was unfair.
“I am … disappointed that Herb Snyder has taken the low road and has resorted to false accusations and name calling,” Ruland said. “He knows that as a candidate, I am prohibited by law from having any influence or contact with any political action committee. As much as I might not like it, I am powerless to do anything about it, and Herb, and his sidekick personal injury lawyer, Steve Skinner, know that full well.”
Morrisey echoed Ruland.
“It’s really unfortunate to hear such misleading statements coming from Sen. Snyder and Stephen Skinner. They know the rules and the law and shouldn’t be trying to manipulate people to score political points when they know the truth,” Morrisey said. “Shame on them for spreading falsehoods. Jefferson County deserves better from its leaders. I’m disappointed in both of them.”
Two PACs have issued independent expenditures on behalf of Democrats. The Eastern Panhandle Small Business Alliance – which Republicans point out was founded by Skinner and his brother Andrew – spent almost $4,000 on mailers supporting Maxey. The West Virginia AFL-CIO has issued three separate mailers in favor of Snyder, spending a total of over $7,000 in support of his campaign.
Ruland argues that one such AFL-CIO ad that reads, “Herb Snyder Because West Virginia Needs Jobs NOT EXCUSES,” contains an implied attack on him.
“Since I am the only opponent Herb Snyder has, then it must be me that is making the excuses. Except I haven’t made any excuses, nor do I need to make any since I’m not the incumbent.”
Update: Nov. 1 3:20 p.m.
Campaign finance reports indicate that the independent expenditures made by GOPAC have gone, at least in part, to two television ads that will air on cable. One supports Paul Espinosa and a second attacks Tiffany Lawrence. The ads were produced by Glendale Strategies Inc., a Georgia-based political consulting firm.
Update: Nov. 5 12:25 p.m.
The GOPAC-sponsored cable advertisement in favor of Paul Espinosa has been pulled from the air by Comcast, according to Democratic Executive Committee chair Ann Paonessa.