I’ve had a lot of people contact me since a defamation lawsuit was filed against this publication last Thursday, expressing concerns it may have a chilling effect on my reporting. Fortunately I am not in the habit of keeping my mouth shut nor my fingers at rest. I hope the following verbose editorializing serves to put these fears of our readers at ease.
While I’ve had Mayors from two different municipalities try to file criminal charges against me for my reporting, been threatened by several law enforcement officers, and had a Sheriff pull a gun on me in a failed censorship attempt, this is the first time someone has tried to paper me to death — Although this isn’t the first time the Beaver Countian has faced legal threats from members of the now defunct Bipartisan Committee For A Better Economy Borough.
Economy Councilwoman Courtney Barthelemy (who is an attorney) previously brought up the “tort of defamation” in an interview last July when this publication was reporting on allegations of road rage which had been lodged against her by a landscaper. During the interview Barthelemy diverged into a winded off topic rant about Mayor David Poling and his wife being “ungodly people” who were part of some conspiracy out to get her. While I believe her own comments did much to bolster a growing impression the woman may be more bipolar than bipartisan, she still managed to threaten a lawsuit for wild claims that the Beaver Countian could somehow become responsible for damaging her reputation.
Before Barthelemy there was the matter of Dr. Gregory Trecha, yet another public official whose campaign was supported by the Bipartisan Committee For A Better Economy Borough. Councilman Trecha resigned from office last June after the Beaver Countian published an investigative report detailing various bigoted and otherwise distasteful posts made on social media sites about African Americans, Muslims, gays, and women. “If you crap on a photo of Obama, is that a hate crime or photo enhancing,” he wrote in one comment – very bipartisan indeed. I received several anonymous emails threatening defamation lawsuits because of that reporting as well.
This now brings us to Mr. Richard Lapinski (former Bipartisan Committee Treasurer and husband of former Economy Borough Councilwoman Michelle Lapinski) who, along with two failed candidates for public office in Economy Borough, have filed legal action alleging the Beaver Countian defamed them. This time it was my reporting about a complaint filed with the Beaver County Bureau of Elections by the Democratic Committee of Economy Borough and the Beaver County Democratic Committee.
The complaint signed by Mayor David Poling and Michael “Doc” Sisk (who are also named as defendants in the lawsuit) alleged the Bipartisan Committee had violated campaign finance laws by failing to properly report expenditures made during the primary election. I reported the details of their complaint (which was a public record) and reported as Elections Director Doreen Mandity forwarded the matter to the Beaver County Board of Elections. I reported as the Elections Board voted unanimously to refer the matter for criminal investigation and then reported as District Attorney Anthony Berosh referred the matter to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Thanks to some of my confidential journalistic sources, I was able to exclusively report that prosecutors for the AG’s office were raising questions about the accuracy of some of the specific allegations made against the Bipartisan Committee, and finally was first to report that no criminal charges were going to be brought as a result of the investigation.
These are public officials and public figures who were involved in a controversy which was a matter of utmost public concern… the integrity of our electoral process.
While a detailed complaint has not yet been filed by the plaintiffs in this defamation suit against the Beaver Countian, public comments by their attorney show Richard Lapinski believes these articles tarnished his public reputation as an accountant. The implication appears to be he lost business because I reported on this very public dispute.
I reject this entire premise as a farce and at the same time applaud the professionalism of his attorney for being able to forward such a notion while maintaining a straight face.
Although a criminal investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office apparently found specific evidence to refute at least some of the allegations about spending made by the Democratic Committees against the Bipartisan Committee, and prosecutors determined the actions of the organization did not warrant criminal charges, their investigation did not “vindicate” all of the organization’s behaviors as the Bipartisan Group’s attorney would have the public believe. Prosecutors often decline to further charges against violations they deem de minimis or otherwise not worthy of public resources to pursue — violations that “lack prosecutorial merit;” fair minds often differ as to where that line in the sand should be drawn.
What I will first note are Mr. Richard Lapinski’s own words to this publication as the controversy was unfolding. The accountant conceded his organization had not reported all of their utilized expenses during the primary in their 30-day post primary report. He explained this was because they had not yet received all of the invoices from vendors (weeks after the primary election had already ended), but insisted his group would be reporting those expenditures after they had been paid during the following reporting cycle.
A manual produced by the Pennsylvania Department of State Bureau of Elections, which outlines these laws, states that in every mandated reporting cycle political committees must disclose “Each and every expenditure, the date made, the full name and address of the person to whom made and the purpose for which such expenditure was made” and “Any unpaid debts and liabilities, with the nature and amount of each, the date incurred and the full name and address of the person owed.”
The Bipartisan Committee initially reported $978.27 in expenses related to the primary election held on May 21st, 2013 (according to their post primary report which should have included all donations, expenditures, and liabilities through June 10th). On the next reporting date of October 3, 2013 (and after the Democratic Committees had already filed their complaint on September 9th) the Bipartisan Committee reported an additional $3,371 in campaign expenses incurred for purchases made in the primary election, and showed Richard Lapinski personally donated an additional $2,275 to the committee to cover these costs.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, this kind of deferred reporting is not permissible under Pennsylvania Elections Law. “It really comes down to when they took on that financial obligation, they have to report it for the period they agreed to purchase the mailers, or tv ads, or whatever it is, whether those agreements are in writing or verbally or however it may be,” Matthew Keeler, deputy press secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of State, told the Beaver Countian after consulting attorneys within his agency.
If Richard Lapinski is to be believed at his word and always did intended to report this spending, the Bipartisan Committee may still have violated the mandated provisions detailed above by not reporting it at the proper time.
Imagine the implications if the law were not so written. Any committee could theoretically spend a million dollars on advertising to benefit a political candidate and then simply ask complicit vendors to wait until after the official left office before invoicing them. Or what about invoices from supporting vendors with a payable due date set 25 years in the future? The process would become a farce and the press and the public would remain entirely in the dark until well after the information became irrelevant.
But this wasn’t the only provision where Richard Lapinski appears to have missed the mark as Treasurer of the Bipartisan Committee during the last election.
After receiving the complaint by the Economy Borough Democratic Committee and the Democratic Committee of Beaver County, Elections Director Doreen Mandity sent Lapinski a letter demanding receipts for all expenditures. She later penned a letter to District Attorney Anthony Berosh noting the man had failed to comply, and that “Mr. Lapinski stated he or the other two individuals did not have to produce copies of receipts because it is not a valid complaint.”
This appears to be yet another instance where Lapinski violated campaign finance reporting provisions, this time by not providing all of his committee’s receipts to Director Mandity as demanded. Again I point to the Department of State’s handbook:
“Vouchers or copies of vouchers for all sums expended amounting to more than twenty-five dollars ($25) shall be retained by the candidate or the committee treasurer and shall be available for public inspection and copying as herein provided [...] If a candidate or a treasurer of a political committee shall fail to make said vouchers or copies thereof available for inspection and copying when requested by the appropriate supervisory officer, such officer shall direct the candidate or political committee to promptly deliver the vouchers or copies thereof to the supervisory office for purposes of inspection and copying.”
If the quoted figures in the Democratic Committees’ original complaint against the Bipartisan Committee were inaccurate (the Attorney General’s Office found the numbers to be significantly overblown according to sources familiar with their investigation), then that is their responsibility to answer for; but campaign finance laws in Pennsylvania were designed to ensure outside organizations should never be forced to guess about spending totals in the first place.
Whether or not the Democratic Committees’ complaint contained any intentional falsehoods is also now for them to address; but what seems perfectly clear to me, as a result of Lapinski’s own public statements and his interactions with the Beaver County Bureau of Elections, is that the Bipartisan Committee failed to follow at least some campaign finance reporting mandates at various times during the past election.
It is for Mr. Lapinski to explain if these apparent violations occurred as the result of a calculated campaign strategy, were made in honest error due to misunderstandings about campaign finance reporting requirements, or whether he has some other line of reasoning to put forward. His own litigation will provide him the opportunity to do so under oath.
In short, the specifics contained in the complaint filed by David Poling and Michael Sisk against the Bipartisan Committee For A Better Economy Borough appear erroneous, but the basic premise of their grievance still seems to ring true. One can begin to guess why the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office determined this case “lacked prosecutorial merit.” One can also begin to see what this may mean for the fate of the defamation suit brought by plaintiffs, who are all public figures or limited-purpose public figures, and who must all meet the extremely high burden of “actual malice” to prevail (I’ll have more on that in a future article).
Although he exuded a kind of arrogance while dealing with county officials like Elections Director Doreen Mandity as the controversy was unfolding, Richard Lapinski managed a fine job playing the role of hapless victim in a prepared statement about his defamation suit provided to the Beaver County Times. I suspect if Mr. Lapinski had shown just cursory deference to Director Mandity, and if the Democratic Committees would have been more careful about how they crafted their complaint, both sides of the controversy could have provided clarifications that would have promptly resolved this matter — leaving very little to be reported by the Beaver Countian.
I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Lapinski and the others were thinking when they filed legal action against this news outlet, a mere monkey in the middle so to speak, but to me it seems like even more self-destructive behavior by the old Bipartisan Committee. I have total confidence the Beaver Countian will see the case against it either summarily tossed out by a judge, eventually abandoned by the plaintiffs, or at worst favorably decided by a jury; there will be plenty of opportunity for documents to be subpoenaed and sworn depositions to be taken in the meantime.
If, on the other hand, the Bipartisan Committee had banked on some kind of settlement or other agreement resulting from their litigation (maybe in hopes of garnering favorable press) then they have made a serious miscalculation. BeaverCountian.com’s ability to continue to inform the public about the actions of elected officials and public figures demands I see this frivolous lawsuit through to its ultimate demise.
The Bipartisan Committee For A Better Economy Borough included among its members a doctor, lawyer, accountant, pilot, and independent business people. One would have hoped such a group of professionals could have set a shining example of leadership to be lauded by communities throughout the county.
As I have only begun to detail at the beginning of this article, time and again, this sadly just wasn’t the case.
If the reputations of members of the Bipartisan Committee For A Better Economy Borough were at all tarnished over this past year, I suggest it was because of their own collective words, actions, and antics in the political arena. This group as a whole has been conducting itself as a merry band of fools — If they no longer wish to see their names printed in association with such behavior they should spend some time reflecting before a mirror, rather than continuing to expect the public to genuflect before them — filing slaphappy lawsuits against those who decline.