By JAKE ZUCKERMAN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On the same day the state senate majority leader declined to sign a conference committee report that would have gone against slashing the state’s personal income tax rate, he sent out invitations to a “summer retreat” for a dark money organization with the same policy goal.
“This organization has been and plans to continue to be supportive of the policies put forth by the leadership team in the State Senate,” Ferns wrote.
The coalition focuses on “tax reform and controlling government spending,” by reducing the size of government and reducing tax rates, among other policy areas, according to its website.
Senate Republicans unsuccessfully worked throughout the regular and special legislative session to implement tax reform by way of slashing personal and corporate income tax rates.
When asked about the email, Ferns confirmed its authenticity and said there’s a difference between active fundraising and sending out save-the-date notifications for an event.
“I’m sure some people would like to make that connection in order to make an issue out of something that’s really not, but it’s a fact of life that people running for office raise funds, political action committees raise funds,” he said. “That kind of stuff is going on all the time.”
The invitation does not explicitly include any cost or request for donations.
The Coalition for a Stronger West Virginia is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare organization,” as per the Internal Revenue Service. This means it can lobby and donate to political campaigns, so long as these activities comprise less than 50 percent of its primary activity. These types of nonprofits do not need to disclose identities of their donors, hence the term dark money.
Ferns said he did not work on the event during the regular session, though he had discussions with some of those involved.
On the same day Ferns sent the invitations, a conference committee of House and Senate members approved a compromise revenue plan that relied on the House’s proposal to not raise or lower taxes and eliminated tax exemptions to broaden the base. The agreement did not include Senate Republicans’ key point of reducing corporate and personal income tax rates.
Ferns and fellow Republican Sens. Craig Blair and Ed Gaunch refused to sign the conference report, effectively killing it. Blair said because both chambers voted together in a voice vote, Senate Republicans’ voting power was diluted, and the three refused to sign the report to bury it.
Commenting on the email, Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said it seems improper to organize a fundraiser while the state was inching toward a government shutdown.
“I think it’s highly unusual. I haven’t heard of anyone fundraising during session, especially during an extended session when we’re down there trying to fix a budget crisis,” Fluharty said. “It seems wildly inappropriate.”
Fluharty said fundraising while legislating, especially in a relatively short session, raises questions on who a politician is representing.
“I’m against any fundraising during session. I think it’s like, where do your priorities lie?” he said. “Are you trying to get the job done that we were elected to do? Or are we more worried about getting re-elected? If you’re worried more about raising campaign funds during session, who is your true allegiance to? Is it to a special interest, or is it to the people of West Virginia?”
Similarly, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said though there is nothing illegal about inviting people to a fundraiser during the session, the optics aren’t doing Ferns any favors.
“The appearance of that certainly is a bad one, because what they did in not signing the conferees’ report is absolutely keep alive their desired reduction in income taxes for the top 1 percent of the wage earners in this state, at the risk of shutting down this entire state,” Romano said. “Had he signed it, then that budget would have been able to be voted on in both the House and the Senate and would have been likely to have passed.”
On the other hand, Blair had a different take on the email.
“Let’s put it this way, it’s not illegal,” he said.
He continued, saying it’s a non-issue. He said Ferns did not fundraise during the session in the sense that no money changed hands. Despite how it might look, Ferns was only pushing for the tax reductions for his own ideological reasons, Blair said.
“I don’t see how that influences the legislative process in any way,” Blair said. “It’s not like Sen. Ferns was lobbying for money for his campaign or anyone’s campaign or anything like that. … [It’s] not a big deal, that’s just time management.”
Senate Majority Whip Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, largely agreed.
“The fact that they sent out something for an event that was going to take place much later does not trouble me as much as it would have if it were going to take place during the session,” Palumbo said.
Patrick Esposito is the coalition’s director and president, and Greg Thomas incorporated it, according to business filings with the secretary of state.
Thomas used to run West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and served as an aide to former Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship. He also worked on Ferns’ campaign.
Thomas would not comment for this report.
During the legislative session, Ferns sponsored a campaign finance reform bill in March that would have increased campaign contribution limits and reworked regulations of how political action committees can fund elections. The bill ultimately died in the House.
He also voted in favor of another bill that became law, which requires candidates to disclose any fundraising they do while the legislature is in session.
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