State officials said Thursday they are awaiting paperwork from a local nonprofit group accused of skirting registration requirements in its opposition to the Western Bypass of U.S. 29.
A Virginia Board of Elections spokeswoman said the agency has launched a review of the Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition following Albemarle County Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd’s filing of a formal complaint charging that the group failed to properly register with the state board and as a political organization with the Internal Revenue Service.
“And yet it is engaged in express advocacy and sham issue advocacy in connection with four elections for Member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors,” the complaint reads.
Recent coalition radio, television and newspaper ads sound off on the bypass and call on voters to respond at the polls Tuesday.
Boyd said he also has called on the IRS, the state Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Agriculture’s Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs to investigate.
“I find it very hypocritical that an organization billing itself as the Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition is running ads … without, as far as I can tell, having filed the appropriate paperwork,” Boyd said Thursday.
State Corporation Commission records list the bypass coalition and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition, formed in 1988, under the same corporate identification number. The bypass coalition filed for a fictitious name Sept. 24, according to commission records.
Because neither group is a political action committee, neither is required to register with the state Board of Elections, the bypass coalition said in a release Thursday. The group said the bypass coalition is part of the transportation coalition.
“We have not endorsed any candidates,” the release reads. “We have simply presented facts.”
State Board of Elections spokeswoman Nikki Sheridan said the agency is awaiting the bypass coalition’s statement of organization, known as an SOO.
The board “is not an investigative body; therefore, our option at this point is to wait for their SOO to arrive, assuming the organization is required to file an SOO,” Sheridan wrote in an email.
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Transportation Coalition is registered as a 501(c)4 nonprofit group with the IRS.
Asked whether a group claiming that exemption is required to be registered with the state board to run political ads, Sheridan cited a section of the state code that stipulates that groups must register as a state PAC if the group is “organized for the primary purpose of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate” and the group is “raising or spending more than $200 in a calendar year.”
Ads sponsored by the bypass coalition have run in local media from radio to television to print.
A 30-second spot airing on NBC29 and paid for by the coalition shows children playing along a roadside to the sounds of blaring traffic with cuts to tractor-trailers speeding along a highway and a night shot of the Albemarle County Office Building.
The ad criticizes supervisors Duane E. Snow and Rodney S. Thomas, both seeking re-election next week, for their June 2011 votes on the bypass. In a 4-2 decision, supervisors directed representatives on the Metropolitan Planning Organization to remove language blocking the state from allocating money to construction of the bypass.
“Duane Snow and Rodney Thomas voted to bring the proposed Bypass within 1,800 feet of six local K-12 schools,” the ad reads.
“Snow and Thomas reversed decades of policy under darkness, near the stroke of midnight,” it continues. “On November 5, exercise your right to vote, in the light of day.”
A 60-second advertisement paid for by the coalition airing on radio station WINA-AM asks listeners to “hold Duane Snow and Rodney Thomas accountable for their actions.”
A full-page political ad in The Daily Progress urges voters to “take action at the polls on November 5th” and directs readers to the coalition’s Facebook page for details on candidates’ voting records.
Transportation coalition board members include Robert Humphris, husband of late supervisors Chairwoman Charlotte Humphris, and Anne Rooker, wife of county Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker, according to coalition President George Larie and the group’s 2005 tax form.
State Corporation Commission records state the organization formed in 1988 with the intent to research alternatives to the bypass. The IRS revoked the group’s 501(c)4 status last year after it failed to file the IRS’ required Form 990s for three consecutive years, but the coalition did file a 990-N (e-Postcard) last year, according to online records.
Unlike donations in the case of the more common 501(c)3 charitable organization, gifts to a 501(c)4 are not tax-deductible, in part because the groups are allowed greater freedom to lobby, according to the IRS. Some participation in political campaign activities is also allowed so long as it is not the groups’ primary purpose.
The IRS came under fire earlier this year for its scrutiny of the 501(c)4 status of several tea party-affiliated organizations.
Bypass Truth coordinator Nora Seilheimer said that as a 501(c)4, the group remains committed to researching alternatives to the bypass.
“The reason why the Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition exists is to remind people that the Western Bypass is not a done deal, and that elections matter,” Seilheimer said in an email. “The actions of the incumbents have allowed no other way for taxpaying citizens to participate in this issue, and our democracy is based on the ballot box providing that avenue for accountability. This is about stopping the Western Bypass, and nothing more.”
While the bypass coalition release said the group does not endorse candidates, the organization’s Twitter feed contains messages calling for readers to vote for candidates opposed to the bypass.