Anti-Bypass group’s pre-election political activity draws ire from Republicans

Republican Supervisor Ken Boyd calls for an investigation into the Bypass Truth Coalition at a press conference last week. Photo: Courteney Stuart Republican Supervisor Ken Boyd calls for an investigation into the Bypass Truth Coalition at a press conference last week. Photo: Courteney Stuart

Election day has come and gone, heralding a new era of Democratic dominance in Albemarle County. But Republicans are agitating for further investigation into the activity of a local advocacy group they say stepped over the line in the weeks leading up to election day by operating as an unregistered PAC.

“It seems like there’s a web that’s being woven here, and they’re trying to hide their tracks,” Boyd said of the Bypass Truth Coalition, which has fired back by insisting it’s well within its rights as a registered nonprofit.

Bypass Truth may be a new name, but the group behind it—the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition—is a familiar player, founded by Ann Rooker, wife of longtime independent Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker, local resident George Larie, and others. The IRS revoked CATCO’s nonprofit status for failing to file paperwork for three straight years, but records show that status was reinstated in May. Shortly after, the group filed to do business under a different name: the Bypass Truth Coalition.

A flashy website, a well-maintained Facebook page, and a press release announcing a “new grassroots coalition” followed. Only one name is mentioned in recent communications: Nora Seilheimer, a St. Anne’s-Belfield mom of two.

The group decided to rebrand itself “because we liked the idea of a fresh name for our first effort in social media,” Seilheimer said in an e-mail.

Since then, Bypass Truth has worked with local PR and design firms on its Facebook and Twitter campaigns and TV, radio, and print ads—including one that ran in this paper—that slammed Rodney Thomas and Duane Snow, the two Republicans running to keep their county supervisor seats, for their roles in bringing the Bypass project back to life in a late-night vote in 2011.

And that’s what Boyd says is alarming. He announced in a Halloween press conference that he was asking the State Board of Elections and the IRS to investigate the group, and voiced his suspicion that Bypass Truth should have registered with the State Board of Elections and been open about its funding sources.

“If they believe in what they’re saying about us, they should be transparent in who they are,” Boyd said. “They seem to be going to great lengths not to.”

Legally, it’s fine for 501(c)(4) nonprofits like CATCO to get involved in politics, said Michael Gilbert, an associate professor at UVA’s School of Law and an expert on election law. Unlike PACs, they ordinarily have no obligation to reveal their donors, and the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case gave them even more leeway.

The hitch: Political advocacy can’t be their primary purpose. If that sounds a little hard to define to you, you’re not alone.

“We don’t have any clarity,” Gilbert said. “We don’t know where the line is between a properly registered social welfare group and a PAC in disguise.”

Neither Larie nor Rooker, who are still on CATCO’s board, returned calls for comment, but Seilheimer said the group is a legally operating 501(c)(4). And whatever questions Republicans are raising about its activity, the group has succeeded at pushing the Bypass issue; Thomas and Snow spent the bulk of their own half-hour press conference last week defending their positions on the road.

Meanwhile, in a statement released after Boyd’s press conference, the group said it would comply with requests from state election regulators, should it receive any.

“We are purely a local group with nothing to hide,” the statement read.