Democrats are crying foul over lawn signs attacking state Senate candidate Lindsey Williams as a "Socialist," saying they look just like the signs used by her own campaign.
And the treasurer of the group paying for those signs, the North Hills Republican Club, looks just like Carlton Fogliani, the campaign manager of her Republican rival, Jeremy Shaffer.
Democrat Rock Kernick says the signs began appearing Saturday morning in the 38th Senate district, which encompasses North Hills suburbs and a chunk of Pittsburgh's East End.
“I started getting reports that they were everywhere," said Kernick, who chairs the Hampton Township Democratic Committee. "My wife and I saw three driving down Route 8 Saturday afternoon.”
Democrats were troubled by how similar the design of the "Socialist" sign was to that of the Williams campaign itself. Cliff Levine, an attorney for state Democrats, said that because the signs look so much like Williams' own messaging, they violate a state law requiring that signs "clearly and conspicuously state the name of the person who made or financed ... the communication."
"You have to own your messaging," said Levine. "If that’s Jeremy Shaffer’s messaging, then it should say ‘paid for by Jeremy Shaffer.'"
Levine said the party would likely refer the signs to either District Attorney Stephen Zappala or state Attorney General Josh Shapiro for potential prosecution.
During an interview with 90.5 WESA Monday morning, Shaffer and his campaign manager, Carlton Fogliani, appeared to distance themselves from the signs.
“There’s a lot of organizations involved in this campaign on both sides who are expressing views,” Fogliani said when asked about them. "If there’s an expectation that each side is going to comment on the other side’s supporters doing their own third-party thing, then it needs to be fair on all sides."
Asked if he knew anything about the Club’s leaders or members, Fogliani said, “You’ll probably see on the campaign finance filings.”
The North Hills Republican Club is not currently registered as a political action committee in Pennsylvania. But a Department of State spokeswoman said that a registration was pending. That registration identifies the Club’s treasurer as ... Carlton Fogliani. And the PAC's address? It was the same as the campaign office where 90.5 WESA interviewed Shaffer.
90.5 WESA reached out to Fogliani after learning of his ties. In an email, Fogliani acknowledged that he was the treasurer, “which means I pay the bills for the NHRC. Address is easiest place to reach me to pay said bills.”
The Club PAC, which apparently commenced activities in mid-September, has not yet filed financial reports describing where its money comes from. But Fogliani said the campaign would act in “full compliance with all campaign finance laws and regulations at the next required campaign finance filing date.”
Fogliani has reportedly been involved in disputes over financial disclosure elsewhere.
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which administers the state’s elections laws, issued citations for a number of 2008 state and local campaigns for which Fogliani consulted. It levied a $32,500 fine against a city council candidate in Turlock, Calif., for violations that included falsely reporting who paid for a series of robocalls intended to weaken a rival.
“Three of the four robocalls falsely purported to be paid for by someone else, and the remaining robocall did not identify who paid for it,” found the commission. It said Fogliani “aided and abetted” the effort as a campaign consultant.
Another Turlock council candidate was fined $1,000 for not disclosing payments to Fogliani. Fogliani was also involved in a separate campaign-finance case that year, when he served as campaign manager for a California legislator accused of trying to circumvent state campaign-finance limits that involved the legislator’s brother.
Fogliani did not address his role in those campaigns when he emailed 90.5 WESA Monday.
State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, who lost to Shaffer in the primary, said he’d never heard of the North Hills Republican Club – but that the story sounded familiar.
“When things are negative, he has a habit of saying someone else is responsible for it, not him,” Vulakovich said of Shaffer.
Vulakovich was the target of a bruising campaign in which Shaffer had help from the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a staunchly conservative political action group. During the primary, Republicans reportedly raised concerns about close ties between the Shaffer campaign and CAP.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they put [the North Hills Republican Club] together just to do this,” Vulakovich said. “Hey, it’s legal until it’s illegal."
Efforts to link Williams with the Democratic Socialists of America have become a focal point for the Republicans. Mailings from the state Republican Party use a similarly altered version of Williams' sign. Shaffer’s own campaign links her to the Democratic Socialists in a TV ad, which also makes use of the altered sign.
“Not like we're embarrassed for calling her the socialist that she is," Fogliani said after acknolwedging his role in the North Hills Republican Club.
Shaffer himself said little about the ads on Monday morning, though he joked, “I’m not sure why she doesn’t welcome this. I mean, she sought the Socialists' endorsement."
Williams acknowledges that she joined the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, prior to seeking its endorsement late last year. Neither she nor her rival in the Democratic primary, Michelle Boyle, garnered the DSA’s backing.
"I talked to the DSA members about issues that I care about, [and] some of them are issues that we agree on," Williams said. Those issues, the candidate added, included topics like raising the minimum wage and investing more in public education.
Levine, the Democratic Party lawyer, was not aware of the ties between Fogliani and the Club when he spoke to 90.5 WESA. And Pennsylvania's campaign-finance rules are much more lax than, say, California's. There are no limits on campaign contributions in state races, for example. And it's not clear that any rules are broken if a campaign staffer starts a second committee to further a campaign's message.
Still, the attack on Williams would backfire, predicted Kernick of the Hampton Township Democrats.
In seeking the DSA endorsement, he said, “I think Lindsey was trying to unify the various splinter groups that appeared in the Democratic Party after 2016. And I think [the signs] are going to bring people out to vote for her."