Oct. 28, 2015: There has been a correction to this story.
Many familiar organizations gave to Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform so it could run attack ads against the three Republican candidates for Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In the past month, the group raised more than $2.2 million from affinity groups representing Philadelphia trial lawyers, teachers’ unions, labor unions and others.
Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform is an independent expenditure group, meaning they can buy political ads but they cannot coordinate with the candidates or advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate.
But there’s an unfamiliar group called PA Alliance that contributed $500,000 to fund the attack ads through Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform since Sept. 11, making it the second largest contributor behind the Philadelphia trial lawyers.
It gave more than the big labor unions — Service Employees International Union ($488,000) and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($400,000) — and more than the state and national teachers’ unions.
With three of the seven seats on the state’s highest court up for grabs and the remaining members split 2-2 along party lines, control of the court will be decided next week.
“It's dreadful the amount of money going into our elections,” said Terry Madonna, pollster at Franklin & Marshall College. “Money's a corrupting influence and it's got to be regulated some way, somehow.”
“The candidates are benefitting from ads that are largely misleading,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University. “In almost every instance in which a judge is accused of doing something bad, it was simply something required by the law.”
The executive director of PA Alliance LLC is Mary Shull, who is also the Pennsylvania director for America Votes, a coalition of liberal groups in 20 states “acting as a permanent campaign to continually advance progressive causes,” according to its website.
She was also behind Pennsylvanians for Accountability, a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt group that bought attack ads against Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012. That group didn’t file campaign contribution reports or tax returns and got in hot water with both the Pennsylvania Department of State and the Internal Revenue Service.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, had planned to hold a public hearing about the group two years ago. The hearing never took place, according to the Department of State. The group has since disappeared.
The IRS did not respond to a message about the group.
Shull did not respond to interview requests by phone or by email through her contact information at America Votes.
PA Alliance was founded in July 2012 as a limited liability corporation. It’s unclear whether it is a tax-exempt organization. It is prohibited from contributing to candidates, but can give unlimited amounts of money to other groups.
In addition to Shull as the executive director, Philadelphia lawyer Adam Bonin is listed on the group’s creation form, with his law office as the group’s first address.
When Bonin was reached at his office today, he said, “Let me talk to my client and I'll get back to you.” When asked if he was declining to comment, he said, “I am declining to comment.”
PA Alliance appears to be intertwined with the attack ad group, Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, and potentially Democratic Supreme Court candidate Kevin Dougherty's campaign.
A call to Dougherty’s campaign manager was not returned.
On each of PA Alliance’s five contributions to Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, PA Alliance listed its address as 30 S. 15th St, 15th floor, in Philadelphia. That’s the same address as Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform.
PublicSource was unable to learn more about PA Alliance’s Philadelphia location after calls to the real estate broker for the building, and other businesses on the same floor.
However, PA Alliance used a different address when it received a $25,000 check for “2015 Membership Dues” from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 in Philadelphia on Oct. 6.
John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the business manager for IBEW Local 98, is a Philadelphia political heavyweight and brother of candidate Kevin Dougherty.
The electricians union did not respond to multiple calls about its membership with PA Alliance and why it wrote a $25,000 check to the group.
Because all the campaign reports have not been processed, PublicSource could not determine who else has funded PA Alliance.
To receive the money, PA Alliance used a Pittsburgh address at 801 N. Negley Avenue, Suite 5, that Shull previously used on filings with her defunct group called Pennsylvanians for Accountability.
That location is a creative arts space called the Union Project in Highland Park. Jeffrey Dorsey, the Union Project’s executive director, said the group hadn’t been located at that location for years.
That space is actually occupied by HandinHand Counseling Services, according to the Union Project website.
Bonin, the lawyer connected with PA Alliance, also works for the Kevin Dougherty campaign. He recently sent a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of the campaign to television stations about an attack ad by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national independent expenditure group.
The Republican group plans to spend more than $1 million on television and digital advertising during the final two weeks of the race. However, it is trying to boost the chances of two of the three Republican candidates while also airing ads that oppose Dougherty, a Democrat.
They are running a joint ad supporting Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Superior Court Judge Judith Olson, but nothing in support of Adams County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael George.
“Michael George is a very credible candidate,” Ellie Wallace, of the Republican State Leadership Committee, wrote in an email. “Right now we are focused on Judge Covey and Judge Olson.”
George has been criticized recently for his handling of a 1988 murder case in which he was the defense lawyer and emphasized the sexual orientation of the victim. The case was brought up in a Philly.com article.
Correction: PublicSource said a state hearing took place in 2013 on the tax-exempt group Pennsylvanians for Accountability. Though one was scheduled, that meeting did not take place.