On the first weekend in August, campaign signs started to appear around Blacksburg in support of Jason Massie and Dave Shelor, two conservatives running as independents for local offices.
Unlike other campaign ads during election season, the signs lacked the disclaimer required by law stating whether the candidates had authorized the ads, only saying that they were “paid for by Citizens for Local Government.”
In the weeks that followed, more signs and larger billboards started popping up around Montgomery County and the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg, bearing the same disclaimer and backing a total of nine candidates in local races. With the exception of Massie and Shelor, they were all Republicans.
Voters and candidates alike began to wonder who was behind the group that called itself Citizens for Local Government, which to this day has not registered as a political action committee as required by Virginia’s campaign finance laws, and who was funding it.
Their inquiries revealed a flaw in Virginia’s election law, which currently provides no mechanism for local agencies to investigate specific complaints, instead deferring to the Virginia State Board of Elections.
But the board deals with so-called Stand By Your Ad complaints only twice a year — at its January meeting to consider complaints received between the previous July 1 and Nov. 30, and at its August meeting, when it hears complaints received between the previous Dec. 1 and June 30.
Any complaints that the board receives in the busiest five months of a general election season will be heard only after the election has taken place — when it no longer will impact the outcome.
“Enforcement after an election is as bad as no enforcement at all,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
It’s problematic when groups that no one has ever heard of and that haven’t filed any finance reports are spending money, Farnsworth said.
“We have a very fluid financial system in Virginia for funding campaigns, and a wide-open system for contributing creates opportunities for abuse if there isn’t fundamental transparency with respect to donors and expenditures,” he said.
April DeMotts, a Democrat and current member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, said in a recent interview that in campaign finance reports released after the signs first appeared, there was “no information in these reports reflecting any cash donations or in-kind donations associated with this group.”
DeMotts, who is facing Shelor — one of the first candidates to benefit from the sign campaign — said that her own research did not reveal any record of Citizens for Local Government. “There is no PAC with that name, and nobody has claimed ownership of the signs,” DeMotts said.
Among local message groups on Facebook such as Everyone Blacksburg, voters and candidates have expressed concern that an unregistered political group was helping to fund campaigns of conservative candidates.
The discussions prompted Ed Gitre, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech and a candidate for the Montgomery County School Board, to flag Citizens for Local Government to county registrar Connie Viar, citing possible violations of campaign finance laws and Virginia’s Stand by your Sign disclosure issues and campaign finance filing issues.
On Oct. 19, Viar referred the matter to Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt, who then searched for Citizens for Local Government using Committee Electronic Tracking, or COMET, a database hosted by the Virginia Department of Elections, but she, too, was unable to locate a group of that name.
“It appeared that Citizens for Local Government was operating as a PAC, which is a form of political committee,” Pettitt said in an email Wednesday, adding that the group “might be in violation of the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act for failing to file independent expenditure reports, failing to register as a PAC and failure to file campaign finance reports.”
Under state law, PACs that don’t file required campaign finance paperwork with the state can face civil penalties of up to $1,000. If a PAC fails to file a Statement of Organization, it can face a fine of up to $500.
Pettitt, a Republican, said that under Virginia’s election laws, the duty of determining such violations lies with the State Board of Elections, which is then required to report them to the appropriate prosecutor — which in the case of violations by a PAC is the commonwealth attorney’s office in Richmond.
Since she had no jurisdiction over the alleged violations, Pettitt said in the email that on Oct. 23, she advised the State Board of Elections of the issue, “so that they could investigate and report it to the appropriate commonwealth’s attorney.”
The Virginia Department of Elections did not respond to several emails seeking comment for this story.
While voters in Montgomery County continued to wonder who was behind Citizens for Local Government, Massie — the first school board candidate to benefit from the ad campaign — revealed that information after a candidate forum at Harding Avenue Elementary School on Oct. 9.
That day, Massie told Robin Sanborn, treasurer for Gitre’s campaign, that William Price, a well-known Realtor from Blacksburg, and his wife, Jo Anne Price, had paid for the Citizens for Local Government signs.
“Mr. Massie said that the local sign store called him up one day and told him that his signs are ready, and that they had been paid for by that group,” Sanborn said in an interview. “Jo Anne and William Price are big local Republicans, but there is no accounting for where that money came from.”
Earlier this week, Massie confirmed on Facebook that William Price had reached out to him back in the summer, stating that he had purchased some signs for him and Shelor, the independent candidate running for the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, on which both candidates appeared together.
Massie said in a phone interview Tuesday that he and Price have been friends for about 20 years.
“I do construction work, he does construction work. He does a lot of stuff in Blacksburg and pays a lot of taxes in Blacksburg, and we do a lot of work together. William Price is a great guy,” Massie said.
At the onset of his campaign for the Montgomery County School Board as an independent candidate, Massie said that he had asked both the Republican and Democratic parties for help.
“I reached out to both, and neither one of them gave me a dime,” he said. “I would take any donation from any Republican or Democratic organization, I would gladly take money from them if they want to support my campaign.”
Massie said that he never paid attention to the “Paid for by Citizens for Local Government” disclaimer on his campaign signs. “It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when somebody said something about it that I noticed that. I assumed it was Mr. Price, but if it was a group, I don’t know anything about that organization at all.”
Massie added that he doesn’t understand the controversy around the campaign signs.
“I’m just trying to do what’s best for the children. I don’t know why everybody wants to turn this around and be so mean and worry about money. I don’t understand it.”
When reached by phone Wednesday, Jo Anne Price said that “it’s simply my husband and I” who are behind Citizens for Local Government. “We do this every single election. We get signs, we buy them, and normally they are not authorized by any campaign, or by anybody.”
Jo Anne Price served as the chair of the Montgomery County Republican Committee until she announced her resignation in July. She also owns the Trump Store in Christiansburg, which sells a variety of ephemera relating to former President Donald Trump.
The local campaign signs that she purchased and put up around the area are her “free-speech right,” Price said. “I’m a personal person. I could write it on a sign and put it outside of my Trump store and say ‘vote for so-and-so.’ If I wanted to, that’s my right. They [the candidates] had nothing to do with it. I put out what I wanted to do, I have the billboards, they are mine.”
She and her husband paid for the local campaign signs “out of our personal checking account,” Price said. She would not disclose how much money the couple invested (“that’s none of your business”), but said that she offered to forward the invoices to the candidates if they wanted to report the in-kind contributions.
Neither Jo Anne nor William Price has reported any in-kind contributions to the candidates in question, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking money in politics.
But Price denies that the couple’s efforts may have been in violation of Virginia’s campaign finance disclosure laws.
“The Board of Elections said I needed to put [on the signs] who paid for them, so we’ve met that criteria,” she said. “If I have to go and put a strip of paper on them that says ‘authorized,’ then I’ll get a little strip of paper and put it up there.”
She also didn’t consider her support as helping to fund a candidate’s campaign. “I haven’t called anyone and asked them if they wanted campaign donations. If I was going to do that, I’d send them a straight-up donation.”
Price blamed local Democrats for stirring up the controversy around Citizens for Local Government. “The Democrats are making a big deal out of it, as they always do,” she said.
“This is a hack job. We’ve gotten to the point where nobody gets any free speech anymore, if someone doesn’t like something, they go find a law. I don’t have anything to worry about, I’m exercising my free speech rights.”
Massie said that after he received the invoice for his signs from Price, he disclosed the contribution to his campaign. Last week he posted a screenshot of a disclosure on Facebook, showing receipt of $800.28 for in-kind donations in form of the campaign signs, crediting not the Prices but Citizens for Local Government for the contribution.
However, at the time of this story’s publication, there was no evidence that his campaign finance report with the Virginia Department of Election had been updated.
Shelor, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors candidate sharing a campaign sign with Massie, did not respond to text messages and phone calls seeking comment.
And it wasn’t until after Cardinal News inquired about his missing disclosure that he amended his campaign finance report to include the same $800.28 in-kind contribution, also crediting the Citizens for Local Government.
While the Prices maintain that their support for hand-picked candidates in the form of signs and billboards doesn’t constitute a campaign, some of their opponents view it differently.
Wendy Glass, a Republican running for a seat on the Christiansburg Town Council without support from Citizens for Local Government, said that “it’s definitely possible” that the signs and billboards elevating other candidates are hurting her campaign.
“I’d like to believe the citizens will educate themselves before going to the polls, and if they do, they’ll learn they have another conservative option who is a proven leader and who doesn’t engage in this type of misleading and deceptive behavior,” Glass said.
And Gitre, who is facing Massie in the Montgomery County school board race, said that while it was clear to observers familiar with campaign finance laws that the Citizens for Local Government signs might violate state law, they also gave voters the impression that “a group of fellow independent-minded county residents had quickly banded together” in support of these campaigns.
“One beneficiary has confessed that nothing could be further from the truth, that these prominently displayed signs on commercial properties were paid for secretly by the Prices, well-known Republican activists, to help buy these elections. The intent of this county-wide scheme to skirt campaign finance disclosure laws, involving a number of local candidates for office, appears to be thoroughly corrupt.”
And this, Gitre said, should alarm every voter. “Dark money corrodes our democracy,” he said.