Anti-union group not reporting political activity in WV

Gazette-Mail file photo
Labor union members demonstrate against a right-to-work bill in the West Virginia Legislature earlier this year at the Capitol.

An anti-union group linked to organizations involved in campaign violations in Montana and allegedly unreported political contributions in Iowa has mailed pro-Republican political material to voters in West Virginia, while not reporting that activity to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Letters obtained by the Gazette-Mail show that a group operating under the name West Virginia Right to Work Committee has mailed out letters that praise state senators Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, and Chris Walters, R-Putnam, for supporting the state’s recently passed right-to-work law and criticize their Democratic opponents for not returning a survey about the issue.

“With control of state government up for grabs this fall, you can be sure Big Labor is going all-out to put the Mountain State back under its forced-unionism stranglehold,” the letters read.

The Republican-backed right-to-work law bans labor unions from collecting dues from non-union employees, while allowing those workers to continue to benefit from the union’s wage and benefit negotiations. West Virginia became the 26th state to pass such a law earlier this year, with the Republican-led Legislature overriding Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s veto of the bill.

That law has become one of the key issues in this year’s legislative elections, prompting labor groups to donate tens of thousands of dollars directly to Democratic candidates and a third-party advertising campaign.

But while the West Virginia AFL-CIO, dozens of state unions and the West Virginia Family Values PAC — a political action committee largely funded by labor groups — have disclosed their political spending with the state, there have been no reports of independent expenditures or electioneering communications made by the West Virginia Right to Work Committee.

Both Republican senators named in the group’s letters said they had no idea that it was sending out political material on their behalf.

“This is the first time I have heard about it,” said Walters, who is running for his second term in the state Senate. “I have never seen one of their mailers.”

Boso, who was appointed to his Senate seat in January 2015, knows of the group but said he didn’t know it was sending out letters mentioning his campaign. He emphasized that he had no role in reporting third-party spending.

“I respect the [laws] in regard to coordination,” Boso said, referring to the rules that ban third-party groups and campaigns from coordinating. “I don’t check to see if these groups are registered. It’s their job to make sure they are registered appropriately.”

The West Virginia Right to Work Committee doesn’t actually exist. The group has a web page and goes by that name in West Virginia, but it is officially registered as the Mid-America Right to Work Committee, which is headquartered in Iowa and operates as a branch of the Virginia-based National Right to Work Committee.

The nonprofit’s federal financial reports show that the group operates under similar aliases in Kentucky, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, but it has not reported any type of political spending in past years.

Jon Gorham, which the letters refer to as the group’s executive director in West Virginia, initially answered a phone call from the Gazette-Mail, but when he was asked if the group had registered or reported its political communications with the state, he refused to answer questions.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to comment anymore. Have a good day,” Gorham said, and then hung up.

Gorham did not return follow-up calls, but staff members at the National Right to Work Committee confirmed that he is one of the national group’s field representatives.

According to the letters, the group also provided West Virginians with postcards that could be sent to the political candidates and a “roster” of political races in West Virginia that inform voters about which politicians — including the candidates for governor — opposed “forced-unionism.”

The group also asks people to send donations in a “reply memo” so the West Virginia Right to Work Committee could continue to pay for the “candidate survey program.” “Anything you can do — $250, $100, $75, $50 or $25 — will help,” the letter says.

Briana Wilson, the West Virginia secretary of state’s communications director, confirmed that the group hasn’t reported any type of political spending, but said she could not disclose whether any official complaints had been filed over the letters.

If complaints are received, she said, they would either be dismissed, taken up for corrective action or passed along to county prosecutors.

Union leaders, who have helped organize attack ads against Walters and many other Republican candidates, believe the group’s failure to report the political messaging violates state law.

“There is no question that what they have done, at a minimum, is electioneering communication,” said Josh Sword, the secretary of the West Virginia AFL-CIO.

This is not the first time that the National Right to Work Committee or its regional branches have been accused of violating state campaign finance and electioneering laws.

In November 2013, Dennis Fusaro, a former employee of the National Right to Work Committee, sent a letter to the group’s board of directors informing it that he had knowledge of staff members making unreported in-kind contributions to campaigns in several states during the 2008 and 2010 elections and that he believed the practice continued in Iowa during the 2012 election cycle.

Fusaro, who is best known for leaking information that prompted an investigation into endorsement buying by Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the National Right to Work Committee’s political activities included assisting candidates with labor, computer work, writing, printing and mail preparation for free or at a reduced cost — all things that would be considered in-kind contributions in West Virginia.

More recently, in Montana, several lawmakers were brought up on civil charges by the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices for receiving undisclosed campaign support from a group associated with the National Right to Work Committee in past election years.

In connection to those Montana cases, Fusaro provided an affidavit outlining the political strategies of the National Right to Work Committee and its affiliates that he said had been undertaken “improperly and possibly illegally.”

In the affidavit, Fusaro explained that it is a common tactic of the National Right to Work Committee and its regional branches to send out “survey report letters” — like the ones that have been mailed in West Virginia — right before the election. While those cookie-cutter letters include references to both candidates in a race, Fusaro said it is obviously meant to promote the group’s favored candidate.

“The letters speak for themselves,” Fusaro said, “but as typical in survey report letters sent by these groups, one candidate is lauded and his opponent is criticized.”

As evidence, the affidavit included a letter from the “Montana Citizens for Right to Work” that was sent to that state’s residents in 2010. It’s nearly identical in language and formatting to the documents being disbursed in West Virginia.

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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