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.

  • democracy

    It’s been evident for some time that Ken Boyd detests transparency…witness the bypass vote machinations of Boyd, Thomas, and Snow. The county supervisor election results suggest that Mr. Boyd got hoisted on his own petard.

  • Eric H Schmitz

    I find it absolutely fascinating that a rag tag group of citizens who for years have been castigated as stupid and naive and not worth listening to has suddenly become a concern to the Unholy Trinity that has ransacked County governance with sidetrack issues like ICLEI and Agenda 21, and given taxpaying residents looking for services a nasty taste of budget strangulation. And not on taxation, but on their handling (or mishandling) of transportation.

    The Coalition is organized under the same rules as the local Tea Parties throughout the state. And we all know what a model of transparency they are. And what a fuss was made when their tax status was put into question. Americans for Prosperity operates unhindered locally to make its voices heard in public demonstration and its members directly support and fund all sorts of political activities and candidates, yet they are as stealthy as any when it comes to who and how much.

    I wonder at my own status. Am I member of AFP because I routinely get unsolicited phone calls from them, some by Ken Boyd himself, inviting me to one of their shin-digs or protests or bus trips to Richmond or D.C.?

    And because I regularly post as a critic of the By-Pass and the political action of its proponents and the copious misstatements of fact by three arrogant Supervisors, am I a de facto “member” of CATCO and/or the Bypass Truth Coalition? I’ve contributed no funds to either. I couldn’t tell you who runs either, not for certain — no more than Ken Boyd could. It was called a sham “issue” organization, which is a highly opinionated but hardly surprising slam from a sharply partisan career political hack. Consider the source. A lot of hot air has been expended by spinning and side-tracking the primary issues: one, what is the best and most cost-efficient solution(s) to this areas congestion woes; and, two, what is the appropriate way to incorporate and listen to public input in decision-making.

    Thomas and Snow (and by extension Boyd) were soundly repudiated by their constituents, like incumbents rarely are anywhere. I’d like to think it was I hammering at their record, not CATCO, that turned the election around. LOL But the TRUTH is that it is the repeated tone-deafness and cram-down hardball tactics of three political animals that failed a major referendum ON THEIR RECORD. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t CATCO. It wasn’t a ByPass Truth organization and it wasn’t Agenda 21 at work. It wasn’t people “trying to steal your money”, a stock Shrilling label, but ordinary taxpayers looking for governance that is honest with them, open with them, partners with them, in finding solutions, in an economically challenged time.

    How thick do these three men have to be to NOT see that wasting $350 Million or more on a “solution” that meets NONE of its stated objectives is a lousy example of stewardship of scarce financial resources? And these are men who tout fiscal responsibility? Boyd speaks of “shams” — hey, Ken, look hard in that mirror.

    And how hard is it to comprehend, really, that the “Midnight Vote” was symbolic of a long-standing pattern of by-passing public input and a reminder of just how far “they” would go to impose their will on the people? Now I hear, again, how “stupid” we all are. All I can say is, Ken, none of us “stupid” people will be sitting at the table by their lonesome, finally having to give a compelling and truthful rationale for their interests. The table has been turned. Bullying and insults won’t get you far.

  • Wanago Bob

    The true members of Bypass Truth have gone underground and refuse to talk to the press. I think the bypass is not a great road but that doesn’t justify breaking the law to hide the donors of an anti republican campaign. Where are they? Why won’t they talk?

    1. They are deathly afraid of having to reveal their donors

    2. Since “Political advocacy can’t be their primary purpose” they are in enormous trouble because nearly all the money they have spent is on direct expressed advocacy. That is what is against the law.

    3. They used a fictitious name on the ads when they should have used CATCO, any number of readings of the law show that practice to be illegal as well.

    It’s kind of silly they got in trouble when they could have easily avoided it but to do so they would have been forced to be transparent. That seems to be something this group of “truth seekers” want to avoid at all cost. The longer their silence the grander their hypocrisy.

    BTW Listening to Eric H Schmitz is the definition of the howling at the wind- he has an unnatural hatred of Ken Boyd that would usually suggest a good therapist. He talks about the coalition like he is a member of bypass truth- I would wager he is not.

  • Wha? Chinango

    How can this guy cry foul when he and his buddies staged a late night coup, marching a non compos mentis Lindsey Dorrier to sign the deed to the family home while Lassie was furiously barking for Grandpa to come down and call them pusillanimous polecats and send them skulking back to their clubhouse?

  • RandySalzman

    These three supervisors are attacking a group of parents concerned about the health of their children with their disgusting attempt to change the subject from the issues with this $300+ million highway which does not “bypass” our community. This highway will run a quarter mile from six area schools at a time when the EPA is suggesting that all schools within a half mile of a major highway be studied to discover the extent of the health issue. Since 2009, there have been over 20 peer-reviewed studies showing that auto exhaust leads to asthma, autism and lung capacity issues in children and pregnant women.

    Mr Boyd does not want people to know this because it illustrates that he’s failed to do his basic job as a supervisor — protect his constituents.

    He does not want people to know that this $300+ million highway will do much less for congestion, less for traffic speed and less for safety than $80 million on overpasses at Rio and Hydraulic which VDOT sequenced FIRST, saying clearly that the state should only build the “bypass” if other projects, like the overpasses, failed to solve the issue and only if there was money available.

    He does not want his constituents to know that building the “bypass” will destroy residential tax value in Albemarle County to the tune of $80 million but building the overpasses will increase the commercial tax value along 29N.

    He does not want voters to realize that the “bypass” will cross some 43 streams feeding the water supply for over 100,000 people and that, even if there are no ammonia, diesel or other chemical trucks overturning, dirt and sand will flow into our drinking water during construction.

    He does not want taxpayers to realize that VDOT estimated the cost for this “bypass” at $436 million just months before Sec. Connaughton accepted the puny “bait and switch” construction bid of $135.9 million and IMMEDIATELY began re-designing the accepted design for, VDOT engineers say, “substantially” more money.

    He does not want all of us to read the Places29 plan — which he voted for — and which says: “The (Bypass) project as designed does not meet community or regional needs, and has been determined too costly for the transportation benefits to be gained. The transportation goals of the Bypass can be more effectively realized with improvements to the existing Route 29 corridor.”

    Instead, he wants to attack a group of parents for worrying about their children’s health?

    But, yes, Mr. Boyd, you are right. There are others besides the parents at Agnor-Hurt Elementary, Mary Greer Elementary, Jack Jouett Middle, Albemarle High School, Ivy Creek, and St. Anne’s-Belfield School worried about the health effects of spending six hours a day within 1800 feet of a major highway.
    The Koch brothers, for example, are worried about kids, too.

    • democracy

      Actually, the Koch brothers don’t care so much for children.

      • RandySalzman

        The comment about the Koch Brothers was ironic. Sorry that was not clear.
        To ensure that I am being clear: The Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition is a group of local parents who are worried, primarily, about auto exhaust into their children’s schools. They participated recently in public discussion by, amongst other things, buying ad time on local media to note some of the questionable things proponents of this highway have done over the past couple years. The Truth Coalition obviously raised some funds and I don’t where they found the money for discussing the issues. But obviously they did. Supervisor Boyd claims that they got the money from out of town, variably saying Panama and then Washington D.C.. It is ironic that he and his cohorts who benefit greatly from spending by “outside” funders, like the Koch Brothers, makes a big issue out — potentially — some money coming from somewhere outside of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
        Again, as far as I know, every penny that the Bypass Truth page raised was local money. But even if it wasn’t, Supervisor Boyd’s attack is a case of “the pot calling the kettle black.”

        • democracy

          Thanks for the clarification….while there may be parents who are genuinely concerned about children’s health, I’m also willing to bet that some of the local money raised came from those (like in the Colthurst Farms area) who simply do not want the by-pass to pass by where they live. But I agree with you that Supervisor Boyd is a class-A hypocrite, and has been for quite some time.

  • Guest

    Mr. Sal

  • EDVA

    Should we have road improvements in the area? Yes. Have we ever had them in a timely manner or in a manner that thought of the future? No. Should there be nonprofits out there who are political? Yes/No The root of all these issues and why they are not working as they should? Politicians on both sides. As a native of this area, I have seen for far too long how the “good old boys club” or those with “clout” bicker back and forth, approve shopping centers and housing developments (with homes that are far overpriced) that cause more traffic issues than they solve. They have argued this damn by-pass for over 20 years. (Not a bypass at all – it goes right through everything and will create more headaches.) People here complain of our traffic? Drive in Boston rush hour traffic or DC. Our area is too full of people who are so ignorant and self absorbed.

  • CvilleVA

    I have a real problem with Randy Salzman’s comment that the Bypass Coalition is “a group of local parents who are worried, primarily, about auto exhaust into their children’s schools.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. This is about money and property value. These “concerned parents” are property owners who were already compensated for the land to be used. Now that they received better than fair market for the land, they cry foul. And besides, the schools on 29 north and 250 are much closer to the road than the proposed bypass. Aren’t those kids worthy? The Charlottesville Bypass Truth Coalition is nothing but a group of frauds and hypocrites. Period.

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