Campaign rules a reality in local political races

A Shenandoah County church pastor says his flyer endorsing a local candidate doesn’t violate political campaign rules.

Jay Ahlemann, senior pastor at Restoration Fellowship Church near Strasburg, “personally” endorses S. John Massoud for District 6 supervisor in a flyer mailed to about 5,000 people in the north end of the county. The flyer features Massoud’s photograph on one side and statements attributed to his campaign platform as well as a remark by the pastor comparing the candidate and the church. The pastor states that he “personally” endorses the candidate but cannot do so on behalf of his church. The other side of the flyer features information about the church.

“It is absolutely legal on several fronts,” Ahlemann said Thursday. “No. 1: The church did not promote or endorse the candidate.

“Second point: Churches can be engaged in political activity if they desire to be as long as expenditures related to political activity is a minute portion of their budget and that was miniscule compared to the size of budget,” Ahlemann added.

The pastor said he introduces candidates to his congregation during services around election time. Ahlemann said a previous church he led in Northern Virginia engaged in political activity. The pastor also is a member of the Shenandoah County Republican Committee. Ahlemann noted that Liberty University – a private, nonprofit institution in Lynchburg – invites political candidates to speak.

“That sort of thing happens with churches all the time and as long as it’s a very miniscule part of the budget of that church the church can do whatever they want on the political front,”

The flyer also does not include statements such as “Paid for by … “ or “Authorized by …” the candidate as required under state campaign regulations.

Massoud said last week that he attends the church and knows Ahlemann and was aware that the pastor intended to send out the flyer. Massoud said he did not authorize the flyer. As a precaution, Massoud said then that he would report the flyer as an in-kind contribution to his campaign. Massoud did so on his latest activity report.

Information from the Federal Elections Commission indicates that under the Federal Election Campaign Act, an entity that is incorporated would be prohibited from making direct contributions to a federal candidate’s campaign committee, regardless if those contributions were monetary or in-kind. Whether that rule applies to candidates in local elections was not certain Wednesday.

Information provided by the IRS states that “under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office. … Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

The IRS information goes on to state that “contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position – verbal or written – made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.”

But who proctors local elections for candidates’ compliance and how well remains cloudy. Most candidates likely abide by the state and federal regulations governing campaigns, whether reporting financial activity, including the proper language in political advertisements or placing signs where allowed. But, in some cases, opposing candidates monitor each other or watchful residents with some knowledge of the rules keep an eye on the campaign activities.

Localities can regulate where candidates can place campaign signs but not the content. Front Royal, Warren County and Shenandoah County, for instance, classify such advertisements as temporary signs and allow them on private property. Front Royal limits the size to 8 square feet in area and no higher than 6 feet. The town requires all signs removed within five days after an election. By comparison, Warren County limits campaign signs to 4 square feet and no higher than 4 feet. Shenandoah County requires signs removed seven days after an event but does not limit the size.

State code requires that political advertisements such as yard signs and flyers include the disclaimer “Paid for by” or “Authorized by” the candidate or his or her committee.

The Virginia Department of Elections does oversee parts of the electoral process, spokeswoman Rose Mansfield said recently. The state agency wouldn’t know about yard signs potentially violating the rules unless someone notified the department verbally and followed up with a written complaint. In some cases a person running a campaign reports a challenger for not following the rules, Mansfield said. The state Board of Elections would look into the complaint after the election, she said.

Warren County Supervisor Daniel J. Murray Jr. recently accepted and then returned a $250 campaign contribution from the North Warren Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. The Internal Revenue Service forbids nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organizations such as the volunteer fire department from participating in political campaigns. Groups that donate to campaigns risk losing their nonprofit status. Murray returned the contribution to the organization shortly after the media alerted its board members about the prohibition.

The case of the volunteer organization’s contribution rests more on the shoulders of the nonprofit rather than the candidate, Mansfield explained. However, the candidate also should be aware that he or she should not accept donations from a nonprofit. Candidates also should not accept donations from anonymous donors, she added.

“With this particular case, the candidate returning it is the right thing to do even though it is the issue of the nonprofit to know that they’re not supposed to give those funds to a political candidate,” Mansfield said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com