A week before the Nov. 6 midterm election, Friendship resident Eric Stoller got a text message he wasn’t expecting.
“Write in Dom Costa for General Assembly,” it read. “Vote Against Socialism! Hear what Socialist Sara thinks of you.”
“I was not happy,” said Stoller, who along with his wife received the same message multiple times. The couple had voted for Democrat Sara Innamorato in her primary win over incumbent state Rep. Dom Costa in the May primary. Innamorato had been backed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America for the 21st District, which includes a swath of Pittsburgh’s East End and some northern suburbs across the Allegheny River.
“She was the official candidate of the party,” Stoller said.
Stoller also couldn’t figure out who contacted them, or how.
More than a month later, the money behind the last-ditch effort to stop Innamorato remains murky. The one group publicly associated with it, Americans Against Socialism, has not filed paperwork typically required under the state’s election law. And the man who appears to be a key figure behind the group, businessman and Port Authority of Allegheny County board treasurer Robert Kania, declined requests for an interview.
The texts Stoller received echoed political yard signs seen in the district. They too encouraged voters to “Vote against Socialism! Write in: Dom Costa,” and were labeled “paid for by Americans Against Socialism.” A website, americansagainstsocialism.org, made a similar appeal, also linking to an online video which excerpted a podcast in which Innamorato seemed to disparage the racial attitudes of working-class voters. (Innamorato says she was trying to discuss how racial divisions were exploited by economic interests.) The texts Stoller received linked to the same YouTube video.
A Paypal page linked to the site provided the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, and site registration data available online named the page’s registrant as Kania Enterprises. Kania is listed as the firm’s president on other campaign-finance reports, and is a frequent donor to Republican causes.
WESA approached Kania after a Dec. 7 meeting of the Port Authority board to discuss the group. He declined to speak at the time, later saying in an email that the board is “nonpolitical. We work together as a board to achieve the mission of the Authority, it is not an appropriate place for any board member to discuss their political activities.”
He said he would “consider [WESA’s] request” for an interview, but did not respond to follow-up requests, which included a list of questions about the entity’s actions and finances.
After WESA had taken screen captures of americansagainstsocialism.org, the site was taken down.
Elections officials said that as of Dec. 18, Americans Against Socialism had filed neither registration nor financial disclosure forms with the Department of State.
A group with a similar name was established as a federal “super PAC” in Long Beach, N.Y. in August. But it’s not clear that it has any relationship to the effort in Pittsburgh. The New York entity has not filed financial reports and did not reply to requests for comment.
Even if a group is a federal super PAC, and even if it spends independently of a candidate’s own campaign, Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said state law requires it to follow the same reporting laws as other committees. Those rules oblige groups to register as a political committees within the state if they spend more than $250. Any group that spent at least that much in the days prior to the election would be required to file a 30-day post-election report due Dec. 6
And under state law, “no committee can operate without a chairperson and a treasurer,” said Republican attorney Ron Hicks. He also added that PACs need a designated bank account. “Those are the requirements to set up a committee … it’s not something that’s onerous to do.”
Hicks said typically, when a PAC doesn’t register with the state, a complaint is filed with the Secretary of State or the Allegheny County Board of Elections. Those offices can conduct an investigation to assess civil and potential criminal penalties.
“If you don’t file an expense account, ‘any candidate or treasurer of a political committee, who shall fail to file an account of primary or election expenses shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,’” said attorney Cliff Levine, an attorney for state Democrats, reading from Pennsylvania's campaign finance law.
The lack of disclosure makes it hard to track the actions of Americans Against Socialism, or how much money it spent. But campaign professionals say cell phone numbers can be acquired from third-party vendors. And while federal law bars the sending of automated texts, pre-formatted texts can be sent manually with a few clicks.
Gary Britcher, an Aspinwall Republican who told WESA he was involved with the write-in effort, described it as the work of a handful of “private individuals who did not want to see Sara win.”
Some 3,584 write-in ballots were cast in the district — a sizable number — and Costa received slightly fewer than 3,000 of them. That was well short of the nearly 20,000 votes Innamorato received.
Britcher said Costa played no part in the effort, and that the write-in tally was notable, given that “we were running without a candidate. It made things pretty difficult.” (Costa did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously said he was not part of a write-in effort.) Britcher said Kania had set up the website and text messages.
Asked whether Kania would have been the person to file campaign-finance reports, Britcher said, “Yeah, I guess. Why do you ask? We’re not a political organization … I’m just a resident who thought that Dom Costa would be a better person than Sara Innamorato. We’re not a political action group or any of this other nonsense.”
Britcher said he wasn’t sure whether the group would remain active. “I’m very anxious to go in and find out her plans for the 21st District: How is she going to do the kind of things that Dom Costa used to do? There is a good chance we will follow her very closely.”
Like Kania, Costa serves on the Port Authority board. The two chatted amiably and left the December board meeting together.
Kania was appointed to the board by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2013. Board members serve four-year terms, and while Kania’s term ended in 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf has neither replaced nor reappointed him.
“After being appointed by the previous administration, Mr. Kania has been continuing to serve in an expired term as candidates are evaluated for the full term,” said Wolf’s spokesman JJ Abbott in a statement.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who appoints most of the other board members, declined comment through a spokeswoman. But Innamorato said the Port Authority itself is the kind of public service that Democratic Socialists support.
“I don’t know anything about the person behind this campaign,” she said. But she said it would be “very ironic that someone who is serving in something that I would consider is a vital public asset — something that is definitely more socialist than capitalist — would be someone who is running against that.”
“When we all run for office, we have to file paperwork,” she said. Not doing so, she said, “to me, it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the people who are doing the work and filing the paperwork, and it’s not fair to the citizens who live in Pennsylvania.”