Last fall, mysterious political yard signs popped up in the Pittsburgh area asking voters to “Vote Against Socialism! Write in: Dom Costa” for state representative.
On Monday, a campaign-finance complaint was filed against Americans Against Socialism, the group identified as sponsoring the signs and other forms of outreach.
Costa, a Democrat, lost his 2018 primary challenge to Sara Innamorato, who went on to an easy general-election victory in a district that included city neighborhoods and outlying communities along the Allegheny River. But questions remained about Americans Against Socialism, which to date has not registered with the state or filed state-required financial reports about its contributors or expenditures.
A Washington D.C.-based activist group, Campaign for Accountability, filed a complaint with Allegheny County’s Board of Elections seeking an investigation into the committee. A copy was sent to the office of District Attorney Steve Zappala.
“Everyone who is engaging in the political system should know that there are right ways to do that and wrong ways to do it, and those rules exist for a reason,” said Alice Huling, a lawyer for Campaign for Accountability. State laws that require financial disclosure are intended to make sure the political process “is fair so that everybody can access it in the same way,” she said. “[T]hat’s why it’s just so important when something is not done according to those rules, it’s brought to light.”
The complaint, which cites WESA’s reporting on Americans Against Socialism late last year, asks for an investigation into what it calls “serious violations of the Commonwealth’s campaign finance reporting law.” It also requests an investigation into the group and those who may be connected to it, including businessman Robert Kania.
A website that appeared tied to the effort, americansagainstsocialism.org, listed firstname.lastname@example.org as the email address to send PayPal donations. The site has since been taken down.
Kania, a member of Allegheny County’s Port Authority board appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, declined to discuss Americans Against Socialism when approached by a WESA reporter at a board meeting last year. He did not respond to follow-up requests to comment in 2018, and did not answer an email or phone call on Monday.
Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs confirmed receipt of the letter on Monday afternoon. She said such complaints were reviewed by the solicitor for the county’s Board of Elections.
On Tuesday, county elections manager David Voye said the Campaign's letter "is currently being reviewed by the solicitor and, if appropriate, will be referred to law enforcement for investigation."
Gary Britcher, who media accounts quoted as a supporter of the write-in effort, told WESA last year that the group was made up of “private individuals who did not want to see Sara win,” rather than a formal political organization. He said Kania played a key role in the effort, whose backers were concerned by Innamorato’s ties to the Democratic Socialists of America.
Pennsylvania election law defines the failure to file committee paperwork as a misdemeanor offense, assuming a committee incurs over $250 in expenses. On paper, there can be a fine of up to $5,000 and possible jail time for the treasurer of such a committee.
But generally speaking, “it’s not about slamming people and punishing them,” said Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman with the Department of State, which oversees elections at the state level. Complaints can also be filed with the state office, which may refer cases to the attorney general “if there’s reason to believe that they willfully did not register, and we can’t track them down.”
“The term we use, is we are trying to help them 'come into compliance,'” Murren said, though she said staff can impose fees for late filing.
Huling said that whether political spending succeeds in helping a candidate or not, the failure to report its funders and activities “is really subverting what’s going on in our democratic process.“
The process for investigating such complaints can itself lack transparency, she said.
"Really what we’re trying to do is raise this awareness, and point out what the violations were that were reported on, and why they are problematic," she said.
Campaign for Accountability itself is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which does not disclose its own funders “because of the nature of our work,” said Huling. Media accounts and a review of tax filings show links to progressive and Democratic-allied groups. Huling said the group filed all the paperwork required by federal law, “So I don’t think that’s something that’s hypocritical.”