Fund co-founded by candidate issues attack ads
A group co-founded by Republican attorney general candidate Patrick Morrisey is trying to defeat Democrat legislative candidates in the Eastern Panhandle - and Democrats there are not happy.
Morrisey and Republican state Senate candidate Jim Ruland, neighbors in Harpers Ferry, started the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund last summer.
There's no indication they've been involved since last year. Morrisey, who held no official title on paper, and Ruland, who was the group's treasurer, moved to distance themselves from the group earlier this year when they both filed to run for public office.
But the Freedom Fund's start shows how Morrisey used his own money and his out-of-state connections to help Republican causes before he filed to run for attorney general in January.
Ruland's personal accountant, Robert Smith, took over as treasurer of the Freedom Fund and remained bookkeeper until several weeks ago.
During that period, Smith was also treasurer for Ruland's Senate campaign. Candidates and PACs are not supposed to coordinate spending. Smith said he reluctantly became involved and that his job was to file paperwork for the Freedom Fund.
"I don't know anything about the ads," he said.
Now, the Freedom Fund plans to spend money to target Ruland's opponent, Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson.
The early donors to the Freedom Fund include Ruland, Morrisey and several of Morrisey's out-of-state supporters.
Those supporters include Morrisey's colleagues at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm where he worked until earlier this year and a few New Jersey residents who also gave to Morrisey's unsuccessful 2000 U.S. House race in that state.
One out-of-state donor is Morrisey's wife, who currently has a house in Virginia and does lobbying work in D.C.
Morrisey is a former congressional staffer, lawyer and sometimes lobbyist. He moved to the Eastern Panhandle in 2006. There, he began to get involved in West Virginia politics by writing letters and columns in newspapers and trying to move waves in Republican circles.
It hardly seems as if he intended to run for public office this year.
In a radio interview this summer, Morrisey said he tried to recruit others to run against Democrat Attorney General Darrell McGraw, but no one did.
"So there was little bit of a 'Well, no one else very strong is going to step forward, so I would consider it,'" Morrisey said in the interview. "And then a number of folks within the party - the members of Congress - thought it would be a good idea if I stepped forward because this was not really in the life plan."
Since they filed to run, Morrisey and Ruland "have not had any involvement with" the Freedom Fund, its current treasurer, Suzanne Morgan, said Thursday.
After Ruland left, he asked Smith to do the group's books.
Smith said he got involved at Ruland's request.
"I said it's not really what I want to do, but if you need me to do that, I'll do that," Smith said.
During a telephone conversation, Smith did not come off as much of a politico and confused the candidates in past year's U.S. Senate and governor's races.
Morgan said she "took over from Mr. Morrisey immediately after he filed, and Mr. Ruland removed himself as treasurer after he filed."
"Robert Smith stepped down as treasurer after I discovered that he was also treasurer for Ruland for Senate while reading a campaign ad in The Journal of Martinsburg on September 23," she said.
She said there is an expenditure mentioning Snyder but there would be no expenditures "for or against" Ruland or Morrisey.
In a report filed Thursday, the Freedom Fund said it had $28,000 in cash. About a third of that came from Ruland, Morrisey and Morrisey's out-of-state connections.
Some of that has also been spent in recent days.
The fund has bought mail attacking several Democrats in Berkeley and Jefferson counties, including 63rd District House candidate Donn Marshall, 65th District candidate Tiffany Lawrence, 66th District candidate John Maxey and 67th District candidate Stephen Skinner.
Skinner has taken exception to the mail pieces, which try to pin him, Marshall and Maxey with last year's legislative effort to raise DMV fees.
"We need to tell Stephen Skinner we've had enough of these harmful votes!" the version that targets Skinner says.
Skinner was not in the House at the time. He said it's misleading.
"It borders on libel and crosses the line of basic decency," Skinner said.
Snyder called Ruland a coward if the Freedom Fund attacked him.
"I hold my opponent, Jim Ruland, personally responsible for anything that Freedom Fund PAC does and will act accordingly," Snyder said. "Any negative advertising, I will have the courage to put my name on it. I will not hide behind some faceless group as a coward."
Ruland did not respond to a phone call or electronic message seeking comment.
The intriguing political action committees are not limited to pro-Republican groups, though. McGraw has one group backing him. The group, Standing Up for West Virginia, has spent about $150,000 to aid McGraw, according to state campaign finance records.
It received $146,000 from Vangusta Inc., a newly created company started by attorney Roger Forman solely to funnel money to the political action committee, which is being run by Charleston political operative Larry LaCorte.
Forman said he started the company to get money to the group because he loves McGraw.
Forman declined to name other people involved in the group. Because of the way it is structured, the public might never know just who is funding the pro-McGraw group.