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Political nonprofit skirts Pennsylvania election law in name of accountability

By   /   May 16, 2013  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — A new political nonprofit claims to be holding Gov. Tom Corbett accountable on behalf of Pennsylvanians.

But the group comes up short on the accountability scale, itself.

CAMPAIGN AD: One of several mailers distributed by Pennsylvanians for Accountability during the final weeks of last year's election cycle.

CAMPAIGN AD: One of several mailers distributed by Pennsylvanians for Accountability during the final weeks of last year’s election cycle.

The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit is called Pennsylvanians for Accountability, and in recent weeks it has been airing television ads attacking Corbett’s policies for supposedly short-changing education in order to fund corporate tax breaks.

An article published Wednesday by Public Source, an investigative reporting organization based in Pittsburgh, calls attention to the group.

The ads blast Corbett for playing a “shell game” that cuts money from education and forcing districts to lay-off teachers while “bankrolling big tax cuts for his corporate backers.”

The same group paid for mailers in four state House races last fall — ads that started turning up in mailboxes only a week after the group officially incorporated with the state Department of State last October.

The ads that ran last year were targeted at state Reps. Warren Kampf, R-Chester; Rick Saccone, R-Washington; Justin Simmons, R-Lehigh; and Dan Truitt, R-Chester.

All four won re-election in four of the closest races in the state.

“Groups that call for the election or defeat of a specific candidate must register as a political committee, and political committees must report donations and expenses. But by steering clear of words like ‘elect,’ ‘defeat,’ or ‘vote against,’ social welfare groups are considered issue advocacy groups and do not have to register as political committees in Pennsylvania,” Heltzel writes in the report.

Pennsylvanians for Accountability is one of several “dark money groups who attempt to sway public business, yet whose identity is unknown,” wrote Bill Heltzel, who authored the Public Source article.

ADS ON TV TOO: The group is now running ads against Gov. Tom Corbett.

ADS ON TV TOO: The group is now running ads against Gov. Tom Corbett.

“Groups that call for the election or defeat of a specific candidate must register as a political committee, and political committees must report donations and expenses. But by steering clear of words like “elect,” “defeat,” or “vote against,” social welfare groups are considered issue advocacy groups and do not have to register as political committees in Pennsylvania,” Heltzel writes in the report.

Nonprofits are not required to disclose their officers and directors in the state, though if the group gets an IRS certification, it will have to disclose some information.

The only clues available about the organization come from its nonprofit incorporation documents with the Department of State.

The three individuals listed as “incorporators” are Linda J. Cook, Kevin Kantz and Georgeanne Koehler.

Cook and Kantz have ties to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union.  Koehler is a union activist for the SEIU in Pittsburgh.

The group uses the same address — office #5 at 801 Negley Ave in Pittsburgh — as the Pennsylvania division of America Votes, another nonprofit with the stated purpose of maintaining a “permanent advocacy and campaign infrastructure” to support progressive policies.

CAMPAIGN MAILER: The group ran ads in four state House races. This one targeted state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Washington.

CAMPAIGN MAILER: The group ran ads in four state House races. This one targeted state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Washington.

The building at 801 Negley Ave. is owned by a community group known as The Union Project, but the group’s executive director told Heltzel that he was unfamiliar with Pennsylvanians for Accountability.

And Heltzel points out that the group has a different address listed on its FCC records, which show spending on television and radio advertisements.

According to those records, the group has spent at least $250,000 in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Lancaster and York, according to the Public Source report.

Lynsey Kryzwick, who is listed as a spokeswoman for the group and works for Berlin Rosen, a public relations firm, told PA Independent that Pennsylvanians for Accountability consists of “parents and students, homeowners and young people, the unemployed and the hard working,” but offered no other details about the people who funded the ads last year, or the ones attacking Corbett.

In an interview Wednesday, state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who heads the House Republican Campaign Committee, said he first became aware of the group last year when it sent mailers to voters in four state House races.

Reed said he expected the group would file campaign expenditures after the election, as other political action committees must do.  But those financial reports did not show up.

“We just want to know what the rules are — but we believe that everyone should have to disclose the information about who is giving money and how it is being spent,” Reed said.

Of course, even if there is nothing in state or federal law requiring the group to disclose its funders and its campaign expenses, there is certainly nothing preventing them from doing so.

This story was updated at 2:34 p.m. on 5/16/13 to include more information about the state lawmakers targeted by the Pennsylvanians for Accountability ads.

Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent.com for more.

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Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he enjoys great weather and low taxes while writing about state governments, pensions, labor issues and economic/civil liberty. Previously, he worked for more than three years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covering Pennsylvania state politics and occasionally sneaking across the border to Delaware to buy six-packs of beer. He has also lived (in order of desirability) in Brussels, Belgium, Pennsburg, Pa., Fairfield, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and elsewhere. He received a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University in 2009, but he refuses to hang on his wall until his student loans are fully paid off sometime in the mid-2020s. When he steps away from the computer, he enjoys drinking craft beers in classy bars, cheering for an eclectic mix of favorite sports teams (mostly based in Philadelphia) and traveling to new places.

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