Update: Hearing will examine secretive Pittsburgh nonprofit

A state lawmaker has scheduled a public hearing to examine the legality of a secretive Pittsburgh nonprofit group that has been running television ads critical of Gov. Tom Corbett.

“Clearly, they are trying to influence the outcome of elections,” said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, about Pennsylvanians for Accountability. “The law requires if they make these kinds of expenditures they have to report that.”

PFA mailed critical campaign flyers against four House Republicans running for re-election in 2012 and it has spent at least $250,000 this year on the Corbett TV ads in several media markets. It has not filed campaign reports on donations and expenditures.

The group registered with the state in September as a “social welfare” nonprofit.

Metcalf scheduled a hearing on June 5 following a PublicSource report on May 16. The story revealed that PFA refused to identify its officers, directors or funders. It uses a mail drop in the Fox Chapel Plaza, O’Hara, for an address. One of its three incorporators, Georgeanne Koehler, a retired hospital worker from Pittsburgh, said she doesn’t know who started it or who’s in charge.

Representatives of the Department of State and the Attorney General will testify at the  hearing on enforcement of campaign finance laws, Metcalf said.

“This hearing is nothing more than a partisan attempt to silence the real concerns that Pennsylvania taxpayers have with Gov. Corbett’s budget and the direction that he’s taking our state,” said Lynsey Kryzwick, the group’s spokeswoman, from the BerlinRosen campaign consulting firm in New York City.

The crux of the issue is PFA’s status as a tax-exempt, social welfare nonprofit. It has applied to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, Kryzwick said, and is acting in accordance with its “primary public-advocacy purpose.”

By organizing under the tax laws, campaign groups can bypass Federal Election Commission regulation and avoid reporting donations. Eventually, nonprofit groups must report their expenses, but that happens long after the elections have passed.

But Pennsylvania has different rules and does require disclosure of donors and expenses, according to Metcalfe, when expenditures of more than $100 are made to influence an election.

PFA mailed out campaign flyers late in the 2012 against four Republican House members running in tight races.

The flyer that targeted Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, said his “support of $1 billion in education cuts shows his top priority isn’t our kids.” The mailing said it was paid for by Pennsylvanians for Accountability.

“Why?” Saccone asked. “I’m a Republican in a 78 percent Democrat district. “They were trying their hardest to slander me, to convince Democratic voters not to cross the lines and vote for me.”

Saccone unseated Rep. Dave Levdansky by 124 votes in 2010. Last year, he defeated Levdansky by 114 votes.

He said he assumed that PFA was a front for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, “but I don’t know that.”

There are some clues about PFA’s backers. Initially, it listed a mailing address at 801 N. Negley Ave. in Pittsburgh that is used by the state office of America Votes, a national organization that supports progressive issues. The head of the local office, Mary Shull, recruited Koehler, the Pittsburgh incorporator who didn’t know who runs PFA.

Dan Ford is listed as PFA’s campaign manager on Federal Communication Commission reports filed by television stations that ran the anti-Corbett ad. Ford, of Harrisburg, has worked as a union organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and as a trainer and recruiter for Service Employees International Union.

The SEIU gave $180,000 to PFA last year, according to a U.S. Department of Labor filing first reported by the Pennsylvania Independent, an online newsletter. The union describes PFA as a “political organization” on its report.

The TV ads present a murkier case for campaign disclosure. Corbett has not yet announced his intention to run again, and the election is a year-and-a-half away, in 2014.  The TV campaign could be considered issue advocacy, which the IRS has allowed. 

Metcalfe said PFA is clearly a “campaign style organization.” But even if the TV ads do not count as campaign ads, he said, the group should have filed campaign reports for the 2012 election flyers. And that would have enabled anyone seeing the TV ads to understand who backs the group.

“We want to make sure there is full disclosure so voters can make up their minds,” he said. “If this is a new type of operation, we want to make sure we nip it in the bud, so we can have integrity in the election process.”

Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or bheltzel@publicsource.org.
 

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