BELPRE - Belpre resident John Teschel has multiple campaign signs in the yard of his Rockland Avenue home, including one reading "Stop the War on Coal - Fire Obama."
Those signs have been popping up in recent months around the region, where coal has long been an important factor in the economy. A complaint was recently filed with the Federal Elections Commission against Murray Energy Corp., the originator of the signs, saying the placards don't bear a required disclaimer indicating who paid for them.
But an election law expert says it's unlikely the complaint will be addressed until after Nov. 6. And most, if not all, of the signs locally come from a different source.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Washington County Republican Women’s Club President Anita White discusses the popularity of the “Stop the War on Coal” signs distributed from the Washington County GOP headquarters in Marietta Wednesday.
Teschel, 80, said he got his sign from the local Republican Party because he wants to support coal miners and others whose jobs he believes are in jeopardy because of President Barack Obama's policies on coal.
"He has used the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to stop the building of coal-fired plants," he said.
After the sign went up, Teschel said, folks took notice.
Political committees must include a disclaimer on (1) all "public communications," (2) bulk electronic email and (3) websites available to the general public, regardless of whether the communication expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, or solicits funds in connection with a federal election.
A disclaimer must appear on any "electioneering communication" and on any public communication by any person that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or solicits funds in connection with a federal election.
"I had many requests after people saw that sign for additional signs to spread around Belpre," he said. "Some of the businesses and some of the residents wanted their own signs."
Washington County Republican Party Chairwoman Leslie Haas said the local GOP headquarters at 119 Greene St. in Marietta has had a lot of requests for the signs from supporters of presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"There are a lot of coal miners in our area and surrounding areas that are seeing what regulations are doing to their industry," she said. "They're looking to save their jobs."
Haas said it isn't only Washington County residents who have their eyes on the signs.
"They're driving long distances to come down here to get them," she said.
A Pennsylvania woman visiting her son at Marietta College and her friend also took a pair recently, Haas said.
Washington County Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Varner said she thinks the signs are the result of mine owners and "bigwigs" opposed to regulation.
"Every time I look at one of those signs, I'm like, 'What war on coal?'" she said, pointing to statistics that show the number of coal-mining jobs and overall production has increased since Obama took office. "They're casting it as a war on coal when in fact it's their reaction to regulation."
Haas said the signs given out by the local party were paid for by two local residents who liked the message on the originals and had their own printed when they couldn't get them any other way. They gave the party nearly 500 signs, and only about 50 are left at the headquarters, Haas said.
They do not have disclaimers, but under Ohio law, they are not required to because they were paid for by individuals, according to Washington County Board of Elections and Ohio Elections Commission officials.
However, material available on the Federal Elections Commission website says disclaimers are required for any "public communication by any person that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or solicits funds in connection with a federal election." The definitions of public communication do not specifically mention yard signs but does refer to "any other general public political advertising" after listing mass mailings, broadcast commercials and print ads.
"A disclaimer usually has to go on regardless of who's putting out the materials," said Tara Malloy, senior counsel with the nonpartisan, nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
Malloy said small, inadvertent infractions don't warrant harsh punishment and usually don't bring anything more than a warning, if that.
Haas said that, wanting to comply with the law, she contacted the local board about the disclaimer and was told they'd consulted with the secretary of state's office and been told the signs were acceptable.
A complaint was recently filed with the FEC over the lack of a disclaimer on Murray's signs, not the ones distributed locally, by the liberal policy group ProgressOhio.
The disclaimer requirement is important, Malloy said, because it lets voters know who is attempting to influence an election.
"It's not just to torture citizens with bureaucracy," she said.
The FEC often reaches settlements with groups that violate campaign law that usually result in fines, but it actually has no authority to impose legal penalties, said Paul S. Ryan, another senior counsel with the Campaign Legal Center. If an agreement is not worked out, the FEC could sue the alleged offender in federal court. The U.S. Department of Justice would become involved only if the violations are "knowing and willful," Ryan said.
Ryan said the FEC usually takes in excess of a year to resolve even basic complaints.
"It's highly, highly unlikely that the FEC will act in any public way prior to the November election," he said.
Murray, the largest privately owned coal company in the country, has come under fire for other election activities as well. ProgressOhio filed a complaint in September over the Aug. 14 Romney rally held at the company's Century Mine near Beallsville. Some of the miners who stood behind Romney, a scene filmed and used in recent campaign commercials, told a West Virginia radio station they were required to attend the rally without pay.
On Monday, the Ohio Democratic Party urged federal and state prosecutors to investigate whether Murray has illegally forced employees and vendors to contribute to Romney and other candidates.
Murray issued a statement in response to the complaint, saying "the allegations by the Ohio Democratic Party are simply an attempt to silence Murray Energy and its owners from supporting their coal-mining employees and families by speaking out against President Barack Obama's well-known and documented War on Coal and to get him re-elected, along with his supporters."
Earlier this year, Murray announced the closure of the Red Bird West coal mine near Brilliant, transferring 32 employees to other jobs and eliminating the remaining 24 positions, blaming Obama and his "appointees and followers."