The Republican Party of Pennsylvania has filed a federal complaint alleging Lancaster Stands Up is violating election law by not disclosing how much it’s spending to support Democrat Jess King in her bid against GOP U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker.
The independent grassroots group is “illegally functioning as a shadowy super-PAC” by aggressively trying to help elect King while not filing the required public reports with the Federal Election Commission, the state GOP alleges.
The complaint, which state GOP executive director Michael Stoll filed with the FEC on Monday, is against Lancaster Stands Up and “Common Defense / Beyond the Choir Action Fund,” the political action committee that funds the Lancaster Stands Up operation.
Jonathan Smucker, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Beyond the Choir, said the complaint was “designed as a hit piece” but also that his organization had already been working to clarify with the FEC what information it needed to disclose.
“We’re a bunch of everyday people who want to be involved in the political process so we’re learning how to do it,” said Smucker. “If we have gotten anything incorrect we’ll make correction.”
The group — which has developed a passionate community following since its creation after the 2016 presidential election — endorsed King in December. It has endorsed several local Democratic candidates in 2017 and 2018.
Saying it is working independently from King’s own campaign team and volunteers, Lancaster Stands Up has held events, canvassing and voter-calling initiatives. Its members have held frequent rallies and voiced criticism of Smucker.
The GOP’s complaint focuses on a portion of the federal election law that explains independent expenditure committees — often referred to as super-PACs — must file regular reports showing their fundraising and spending. They may not work in conjunction with the campaign they’re supporting, the law states.
Common Defense / Beyond the Choir Action Fund is a registered independent expenditure committee that had raised and spent more than $300,000 through the end of June, according to FEC filings. But it did not list independent expenditures that specified the candidates it was supporting, as the GOP alleges it should according to the federal law.
The complaint, provided to LNP, alleges numerous Lancaster Stands Up events, social media posts and printed campaign material were intended to help King and not disclosed in required federal reports.
“By failing to file independent expenditure reports Lancaster Stands Up and Common Defense have made it difficult to determine exactly how much has been spent to influence the 2018 election,” the complaint reads.
Jonathan Smucker, of Lancaster Stands Up, said a third party it hired to handle campaign finance disclosures had already raised the question of independent expenditures to the FEC in late July. The group has not heard back, but it will likely be required to amend previous reports to show how much it spent in campaign materials and staff time to help the King campaign, he said.
“We think that it’s pretty clear we’re a community organization that operates in good faith and that is unapologetic and proud of the candidates we're working for,” Smucker said. “We have nothing to hide and we find it absolutely ironic for the local Republican party to accuse us of issues of shady (campaigning).”
The complaint does not request any specific action as a result of the alleged violation.
In a separate statement, Republican Party spokesman Jason Gottesman made additional allegations that “warrant further investigation” but were not in the complaint.
Without further evidence, he said some members of both Lancaster Stands Up and King’s campaign may have illegally coordinated their efforts. Jonathan Smucker is married to Becca Rast, King’s campaign manager, and other founding members of Lancaster Stands Up are now working for King’s campaign as paid staff.
Rast said the campaign does not coordinate with any independent expenditure groups. Staff working on King’s campaign are “trained on how to follow FEC rules and maintain strict adherence to the legal firewall and independent expenditure groups.
King, in a statement, called on Rep. Smucker to “condemn these cynical attempts to change the conversation and urge his party to refocus on the issues that matter.”
King will face Smucker in November as the incumbent seeks a second term in the newly drawn and heavily Republican 11th Congressional District, which contains all of Lancaster County and southern York County.
According to FEC guidelines, the Office of General Counsel will determine whether the complaint is within the FEC’s jurisdiction and meets other initial requirements. Lancaster Stands Up and Common Defense / Beyond the Choir Action Fund will receive a copy of the complaint within five days and they will have 15 days after that to respond to the FEC.
Lancaster Stands Up refers to itself as an independent group, not specifically as "nonpartisan" as stated in a previous version of this story.