A few days before the City Council election in May, a mysterious advertisement appeared in two local newspapers — including page 38 of the April 27 issue of the Alexandria Gazette Packet. The full-page ad endorsed two Democrats and two Republicans: Del Pepper (D), Townsend Van Fleet (R), Andrew Macdonald (D) and Pat Troy (R). The political action committee that paid for the advertisement identified itself as “Citizens for Sensible Growth,” a newly formed political action committee.
The text of the advertisement said that Pepper, Van Fleet, Macdonald and Troy would work toward the goals of the committee: lower taxes, increased historic preservation, protection of neighborhoods, creation of a citywide transportation plan, auditing of the city’s finances, increased citizen participation, preservation of open space and improved sports fields maintenance. Toward the bottom of the page, the advertisement featured four coupon-style, clip-and-save boxes marked “save in your pocketbook or wallet” and “give to a friend.” But few people seemed to know anything about the parties responsible for the unusual bit of last minute bipartisanship.
“I didn’t know who was behind it,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “A number of people contacted me and asked who was behind it, but nobody had any way of finding out. You couldn’t go to the voters registration office and find out.”
In the wake of Election Day, the mystery was revealed. On May 2 — the same day that voters were arriving at the polls to cast their votes — the State Board of Elections received a statement of organization from the committee listing Coldwell Banker Realtor Jonathan Wilbor as the principal custodian of the committee. According to documentation received several months later, the committee spent $3,474 in newspaper advertising in the days before the election.
“In America, everybody is supposed to participate,” said Wilbor. “If the ad had an effect on the election, then I’m happy. But I’m not sure it did.”
Wilbor said that he didn’t consider the advertisement successful because the two Republican candidates did not win — even though they received more votes than any other Republican running in the city election. The two Democrats named in the advertisement received more votes than any other Democrats — with Andrew Macdonald claiming the position of vice mayor.
“We approached the candidates with the list of issues that appeared in the advertisement. Those who agreed with the principles in the ad were endorsed by the committee,” said Wilbor. “I’m sorry that Rob couldn’t have been mentioned in the ad, but from the perspective of the committee, he voted the wrong way on several issues.”
UNDER VIRGINIA LAW, new political action committees are required to file a “statement of organization” with the State Board of Elections in Richmond. But unlike the candidates, who are required to disclose expenditures within 24 hours, the committees have 10 days to disclose their statement of organization and any related expenditures.
“Many times, an election has come and gone by the time the statement of organizations are filed,” said Chris Piper, manager of the campaign-finance division of the State Board of Elections. “A lot of people consider this a sort of loophole.”
To close the loophole, Krupicka suggested that the city support new legislation in Richmond that would speed up the deadline. In November, the City Council unanimously approved supporting a measure that would “require any PAC that makes an indirect contribution to a candidate in the last 10 days before the election (e.g. purchase spaces in a newspaper to endorse a candidate) to report it to the electoral board by 5 p.m. the following day; if the contribution is made within the 24 hours prior to the election day, require it to be reported on the day prior to the election.”
During a December meeting between City Council members and the local delegation, Del. David Englin (D-45) offered to patron such a measure. His legislation, HB 2740, requires that political action committees file independent expenditure reports within 24 hours of making an expenditure or publicly broadcasting materials “to influence voting for or against an identified candidate.” After it passed the House in a 99-to-0 vote last week, Englin issued a press release explaining that the purpose of the bill was to “close a campaign finance disclosure loophole that in May allowed a political action committee to influence Alexandria’s city elections without disclosing the identity of the group’s officers or backers.”
“Any time a group spends money on an advertisement like this, the intent is to influence an election,” said Englin. “And if you’re spending money to influence an election, then voters should know who the group is and who’s behind it before the election.”
KRUPICKA SAID that the experience of what happened in May pointed out how the loophole could be used to create confusion about who was paying for last-minute expenditures. As a result, he said, Englin’s legislation will create a more rapid form of disclosure in which voters and candidates will have a more complete picture leading toward Election Day.
“I’m flattered at the attention that the ad has received, and I support increased disclosure,” said Wilbor. “But I’m not sure that this will change anything. Suppose Krupicka found out who was responsible for the advertisement. What was he going to do with that information?”
Krupicka said that the city’s push to support the measure was not so much a reaction to the Citizens for Sensible Growth as it was an opportunity to make Virginia’s public-disclosure laws more transparent.
“I don’t have anything against this particular political action committee,” said Krupicka. “But this experience pointed out that there was this loophole in the law that allowed people to spend unlimited amounts of money right before an election without having to identify the source of the funding.”