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From the archives 2021

Want to see who’s funding local candidates in Pa.? It’s harder than you’d think.

by Ethan Edward Coston of Spotlight PA |

To test how easily and quickly the public could access this information less than two weeks before the election, Spotlight PA requested reports for school board candidates in nine counties.
MONICA HERNDON / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — On Nov. 2, hundreds of local races across Pennsylvania will be on the ballot, but determining who is bankrolling the candidates and how they’re spending that money can be onerous and time-consuming, a Spotlight PA review found.

Local candidates were required to file final pre-election campaign finance reports with their county by Oct. 22. To test how easily and quickly the public could access this information less than two weeks before the election, Spotlight PA requested reports for school board candidates in nine counties.

The results revealed the consequences of the state’s decentralized campaign finance system, where residents in one county can have far easier access to information than another. Three counties posted the information online, three required an in-person visit to the election office, and three directed the reporter to file a formal records request — an at-times lengthy process.

Melissa Melewsky — media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA is a member — said counties aren’t required to post the financial disclosures online, but they should because it creates less work for them and improves accessibility for the public.

“Access should be consistent across the commonwealth,” Melewsky said. “You shouldn’t get better access in one county, but not another.”

While they get relatively little attention, local races like those for school board, county commissioner, and magisterial judge greatly impact people’s daily lives. School board races in particular have been more contentious of late across the country after fierce debates about school masking policies, and as QAnon followers and conspiracy theorists target local offices to influence policymaking, with some candidates funded by organizations with extreme views.

That makes transparent campaign finance rules all the more important.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which collects campaign finance filings from candidates for state office, makes the records available for free viewing online. Allegheny, Dauphin, and Philadelphia Counties do as well, Spotlight PA found, in easily searchable databases.

Other counties require requesters to appear in person at the county election office, an added layer of complication. Counties have different rules about accessing records in person, such as paperwork to fill out or whether to schedule an appointment. And this information isn’t usually easily available online — people have to call or email. People who are interested in viewing documents but work during the day face an extra burden, as election offices are often only open during regular business hours.

To get specific reports in Montgomery County, officials asked Spotlight PA to send a list of candidates and political committees of interest.

Officials in Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties said Spotlight PA would need to fill out a form in order to obtain the campaign finance information in person. Schuylkill County’s form contains a clause requiring the requester not to disclose the reports publicly, which Melewsky said can only be enforced on voter records, not financial disclosures.

Northumberland County officials said they would send records after Spotlight PA obtained a form in person. They later offered to email the form but never did.

Crawford, Forest, and Fulton Counties asked Spotlight PA to seek the records through the Right-to-Know law, which allows anyone to request government documents. Officials have five days to respond to a request, but they are able to extend the deadline for numerous reasons without much recourse, which could leave voters in the dark past Election Day.

Forest County responded to the Right-to-Know request immediately, sending the finance reports within 24 hours. Fulton County also responded in that timeframe, but only provided campaign finance reports for one candidate and just two committees. Crawford County sent a PDF of the requested reports within 48 hours.

Why access matters

School board races are usually sleepy affairs, but there’s a ton of money pouring into them this year. Some candidates have been linked to QAnon and other extreme views, such as opposing “critical race theory” — a concept often taught in law schools that studies the ways that racism shapes U.S. policies and institutions — or rejecting the science on COVID-19 mask policies and vaccines.

Without campaign finance reports, it’s difficult to determine who’s bankrolling candidates and their potential motives for getting involved in the race.

Back to School PA, a political action committee founded by a Bucks County venture capitalist, has spent almost $700,000 on school board races, primarily to support groups backing Republicans.

A campaign finance report filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State shows much of the PAC’s money came from the venture capitalist, Paul Martino, as well as the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund and Students First PAC.

The Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund is run by Matthew Brouillette, the onetime head of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation think tank. It has received millions from Students First PAC, which is funded by billionaire Jeffrey Yass.

Yass was a major funder of an organization that backed candidates who spread disinformation about the 2020 election (though he later tried to distance himself from them) and, according to Billy Penn, also gave money to groups that backed a candidate who took a picture with a white supremacist.

Palmyra First funded mailers with disinformation targeting Republicans who are running on the Democratic ticket.
Submitted photo
Palmyra First funded mailers with disinformation targeting Republicans who are running on the Democratic ticket.

Among its many expenditures, Back to School PA donated $10,000 this year to a PAC called Palmyra First. The group doesn’t appear to have a website or social media accounts, but campaign finance records show it spends money to support Republicans and has received funding from Brouillette and state Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon).

Palmyra First funded mailers with disinformation targeting Republicans who are running for Palmyra Area school board on the Democratic ticket.

It sent the mailers to Democrats and accused the candidates of trying to deceive voters. The Lebanon County Democratic Party, however, said on Facebook the candidates “listed on the ballot don’t care about Party, they care about kids and schools.”

Ryan Patrick, a registered Republican and one of the candidates targeted by the mailers, told Spotlight PA he cross-registered on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots, which is a common practice for school board candidates.

He was not surprised by the mailers, which called him one of “Donald Trump’s Republican friends.”

“It truly disappoints me that instead of focusing on the issues that our district faces and having open discussions about those, these groups want to try to intimidate, misinform, and act like bullies,” Patrick said.

Dave Laudermilch, another candidate targeted by the mailers, said he’s curious why special interests are so interested in local elections.

“There’s so much outside involvement,” Laudermilch said. “What are the interests they’ll be advancing once they’re on the board?”

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