Digging Deeper: By Dan Heyman
UPDATE: GO West Virginia has just hosted a fundraiser at the Greenbrier reportedly attended by a number of lawmakers and corporate donors. According to an invitation passed on to Phil Kabler at the Charleston Gazette, donors who paid up to $50,000 each could attend a cookout and cocktail reception with lawmakers and play rounds of golf with them. High end donations also included a stay over at the Greenbrier.
Kabler reported that “House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, released an e-mail from House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, asking delegates to plan to attend the fund-raiser, noting that GO West Virginia ‘has been instrumental in supporting our efforts in the House,’ having raised more than $2 million in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.”
Charleston, WV – According to a compliant filed by a Washington watchdog group, GO West Virginia – a political non-profit that does not disclose its donors – is breaking IRS rules with the money it is funneling to Grow West Virginia, a Political Action Committee that appears to have been founded and run by the same person, a Randolph County commissioner.
GO West Virginia is a non-profit established a section of IRS code that allows it not to report who gives it money. In turn, it’s the main source of funds for Grow West Virginia, the PAC with the same PO box. In 2016 (the last election cycle for which reporting is complete), GO WV gave all of the largest donations to Grow WV.
By law, dark money groups can only funnel half their donations to groups buying campaign ads. But according to the complaint by Citizens for Ethics in Washington, GO West Virginia gave more than two thirds of all it raised to Grow West Virginia.
GO West Virginia and Grow West Virginia were founded and by the same people. Mark Scott is a former state Republican Party official and is now a Randolph County Commissioner. In previous filings he has been named as the President of GO WV and the Treasurer of Grow WV.
Scott did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Grow West Virginia’s website brags about its political impact – taking credit for helping to flip the legislature to Republican control.
Scott has been press shy when GO and Grow come up, but previous reports have documented how the group has raised and spend what are huge amounts of money in a previously low cost West Virginia legislative races.
CREW has long been critical of the way the finance law loopholes let anonymous donors secretly funnel money to candidates’ races. Campaign watchers say dark money encourages negative advertising, because the messages can be put out at arms-length from the candidate and the donors.
As Walker Davis with CREW puts it, “dark money is a problem even when groups follow the law. When they don't, the IRS should really take action.”
Julie Archer is with the Citizens For Clean Elections Coalition in West Virginia. She says according to their research, the two allied groups raised and spent about half a million dollars on election ads in state races in 2016. And Archer says they and look ready to do the same thing this year – without GO West Virginia ever once saying where the money came from.
“This is a perfect example of abusing its tax exempt status to funnel money from secret donors into our elections.”
As Archer puts it, “everyone has a right to know who's trying to influence our votes and who's trying to to influence our our elected officials. But with groups like this, that’s impossible.
GO West Virginia and groups like it are technically known as “social welfare organizations,” because they are supposed to be for charity, education and the public good. But as Archer points out, what they are really doing ends up eroding confidence in elections and undermining the democratic process.
Dan Heyman has been covering West Virginia politics and policy for more than two decades. He likes dogs but has trouble keeping kudzu from swallowing everything he owns. For more of Dan's WV Strong content, click here.