Ed. — This story first appeared in the Friday, Jan. 17, print edition.
VIRGINIA BEACH — A letter by Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle says a group formed by a member of the School Board may have violated the law by failing to register with state election officials or disclose contributions and spending used to persuade city voters to back several local politicians this past year.
Stolle’s comments about the Virginia Beach Teachers’ Association, which in November made a series of endorsements in local and General Assembly races, came on Wednesday, Jan. 15, in a letter to Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper.
As The Independent News first reported following the election, Stolle’s office was reviewing a complaint about the VBTA, which was formed in August by School Board Member Laura Hughes. Attempts by the VBTA to influence city voters essentially came out of the blue on Election Day because the group had not publicized its existence before showing up at polling locations around the city.
Stolle wrote that the Virginia State Board of Elections has jurisdiction over any violation of the law covering campaign finance disclosure, and his letter turns over information to elections officials. Reached by telephone, Piper confirmed that the department has the letter and is reviewing it.
Stolle’s letter to Piper notes that “fliers and signs were distributed and posted at voting precincts throughout the city” by the VBTA to endorse candidates. These actions caused controversy with some voters and a long-established organization that represents city educators and has a similar name. Others, however, responded well to the VBTA, noting the group would provide another voice for educators and citizens concerned about city schools.
That established group, the Virginia Beach Education Association, criticized the VBTA as misleading voters. The VBEA has its own political action committee to separate endorsements from other activities undertaken on behalf of members, and membership dues are not used for the PAC, according to the organization. The PAC discloses its spending and contributions to the public.
In November, Hughes told The Independent News and other media organizations the VBTA was operating as a 501(c)4 nonprofit. Such nonprofit “social welfare” organizations are allowed to engage in some political activities. However, state law says they are no longer exempt from campaign finance reporting requirements when they endorse candidates, as the VBTA did in November.
Among other things, PACs are required to disclose their political contributions and spending to the public, which lets citizens know who is paying to influence their choices in the voting booth. They also are required to register with the state by completing a statement of organization that includes information about intended political activities.“
The Virginia Beach Teachers’ Association did not file a statement of organization nor did they file the required financial disclosure statements of donations and expenditures,” Stolle wrote in his letter to Piper.
Aside from stating the VBTA is a nonprofit, Hughes has declined to respond to interview requests from The Independent News, which first reported in its Friday, Nov. 15, edition that the group appeared to be operating as a political action committee without filing paperwork.
This past week — two months after the election — the VBTA filed paperwork with the state to operate as a PAC. The Independent News requested and obtained a copy of the statement of organization from the Virginia Department of Elections.
Hughes did not respond to phone calls on Tuesday, Jan. 14, and Thursday, Jan. 16, seeking comment for this story. Additionally, she has not responded to a Friday, Nov. 8, email request by the newspaper to review information nonprofits generally provide the public, such as an application to the Internal Revenue Service seeking nonprofit status.
About a week after a version of this story appeared in print, Hughes told WVEC-TV the group had “rectified” failing to file paperwork “that we didn’t know we needed to file.” Hughes hung up on a WVEC reporter who asked a follow up question about the paperwork, the news station reported on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
A campaign finance report filed by the VBTA PAC on Wednesday, Jan. 15, shows the PAC spent $600 on Tuesday, Nov. 12, for an IRS 501(c)4 application. The day of that reported expenditure, Hughes told a reporter for The Independent News the VBTA was operating as a 501(c)4 nonprofit and appropriate paperwork had been filed.
The VBTA PAC statement of organization lists Kendra Edwards, who ran for the School Board in 2018, as the treasurer of the group and the custodian of its records. Edwards declined to comment for this story, and she told a reporter to call Hughes.
According to the statement of organization, the VBTA PAC will be involved in local elections and aims “to elect School Board members and other candidates.”
The group’s statement also said it will not be involved in General Assembly elections — though, as the letter by Stolle notes, the VBTA endorsed several candidates in General Assembly races in November.
A card that was passed out to voters at the Princess Anne Recreation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 5, lists endorsements by the VBTA of three Republican candidates seeking state senate seats, as well as six Republican candidates in state delegate races. Endorsements were also made in constitutional and nonpartisan local office races, as well as in a nonpartisan race for soil and water conservation district seats.
The card given to voters says the list is paid for and authorized by the VBTA and not by any of the candidates. Several candidates in November told The Independent News they learned of their VBTA endorsement shortly before the election and they did not participate in a formal endorsement process.
A campaign finance report filed by the VBTA shows that the effort that made such a splash on Election Day was not particularly expensive. The group spent less than $2,500 for posters, stakes and 40,000 palm cards, according to its disclosure filed with the state elections department.
© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC