County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Christiana asked county commissioner candidate Jack Manning to drop out of the race last Thursday so a replacement could be appointed to appear on the general election ballot.
He told BeaverCountian.com he believes Christiana, who also works as a paid political advisor for Republican Commissioner Dan Camp’s reelection effort, has been actively maneuvering behind the scenes to derail his campaign for a while. It is a claim Christiana denies.
Some politicos are characterizing the past two weeks as an attempted political coup meant to overrule the will of voters. Some are saying it’s a power play meant to eliminate a player that can’t be controlled.
But despite claiming Christiana warned him his candidacy would face a death by 1,000 cuts, Manning, 67, of Chippewa Township, vowed he won’t back down no matter how dirty the politics become.
Manning said recent political antics have included influencing what he sees as character assassination at the hands of Beaver County Times political reporter Daveen Rae Kurutz.
Kurutz’s reporting has focused on Manning’s role of executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce. Manning alleges her stories have relied on “lies” and “disingenuous reporting” to unfairly attack his campaign and believes her “false narratives” were unduly influenced.
“It was hard for me to believe that this could be friendly fire from my fellow Republicans,” Manning told BeaverCountian.com.
“I am a very trusting person. Trusting to a fault sometimes. I trust people until they give me a good reason not to … Now I don’t know what is going to happen with my involvement in the Republican party moving forward.”
Christiana would not respond directly to questions about his conversation with Manning, believing their discussion was a confidential one about party politics.
“I will respect the privacy of my conversation with Jack. With that being said, the party has been and remains energetic about our entire slate of candidates,” he said.
“Everybody knows that I have been in support of keeping control of the courthouse and making sure we don’t regress in 2019. Jack is a valued member of the Republican committee and a Republican candidate. That has not changed, and I don’t see it changing.”
Camp told BeaverCountian.com he had no idea Christiana had asked his running mate to drop out of the election.
Kurutz did not respond to specific requests for comment, saying she would allow an opinion piece published by her paper’s Editorial Board on Sunday to speak for her.
On July 23, Kurutz wrote an article announcing that two of the chamber employees who worked under Manning, Emily Konecheck and Tawnya Roman, had resigned. The Times had somehow obtained a copy of Konecheck’s resignation letter, which it published excerpts of:
“In light of recent decisions that I strongly believe have not been made in the best interest of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce, its members or its staff, I find myself unable to continue my work with this organization while maintaining my personal integrity.”
Emily Konecheck is the wife of Josh Konecheck, who serves as district director for state Sen. Elder Vogel, R-47, New Sewickley Township. Josh previously worked for then state Rep. Christiana, R-15, Beaver, as a legislative aid and as his full-time paid campaign manager – information not included in Kurutz’s reporting.
Chamber officials would not comment on why Konecheck and Roman resigned, but Kurutz’s article started a narrative that Manning may have been campaigning while tending to chamber business. It was a narrative continued throughout subsequent reports, despite chamber officials stating it was not the case.
“When the first article came out, I got a lot of calls from (Republican officials and committee people) and others offering their help and support,” Manning told BeaverCountian.com Sunday.
“I thought it was odd that I didn’t hear from Republican Party Chairman Jim Christiana. … I found it strange the head of my party didn’t reach out.”
Manning said he finally had a conversation with Christiana on Aug. 1 when he approached him following a Republican committee meeting.
“Christiana told me he didn’t think the article as it stood was that big of a deal,” Manning said.
“He said if it was going to escalate into a bigger deal and he knew about it he would give me a heads up. Low and behold, on Monday (Aug. 5) I got a call from Jim stating that things could in fact escalate. He had some concerns and he wanted the two of us to meet.”
Kurutz followed with another article last Thursday, Aug. 8, “Manning Out As Chamber Director.” It came on the same day Christiana had scheduled his meeting with Manning.
“That headline was very disturbing, ‘Manning Out.’ What would any reasonable person’s interpretation of reading that headline be? It made it sound like I was fired. I am still annoyed at that.”
Chamber officials confirmed to BeaverCountian.com that Manning’s departure at the end of the month is part of a planned transition that began when he announced his candidacy back in January and intensified after he won the primary in May. Board Chairman Sam Huston issued a statement Sunday describing the transition in detail.
“Early in 2019, when our President and Executive Director Jack Manning announced he would run for public office, we promised a smooth transition to new leadership through the end of the year,” he wrote.
“On August 7, 2019, at our strategic planning meeting, we reached a mutual agreement with Jack that his day-to-day role of leading the organization will end on August 31, 2019. In September and October, Jack will continue to be available on a consulting basis with our Transition Team and our Board of Directors to assure a smooth transition to new leadership.
“This will allow Jack to focus on his political campaign while we focus on determining the next leader of the Chamber.”
Manning said he went for his meeting with Christiana Thursday morning.
“So we met, and to my surprise, Christiana suggested that I resign my candidacy for commissioner and not be on the ballot,” Manning said.
“(Christiana) told me if it happened before the end of August I would ‘have a soft landing’ and they could make a change to the ticket, put another name on the ballot.
“He said if ‘version 2.0’ of the article came out it’s going to get worse, and it will only get worse from there, it will just keep getting worse. … The insinuation was there would be a lot more to come. I flatly told him I am not going to quit this race. My integrity, the integrity of the chamber, and the integrity of the party mean everything to me, but I am not going to drop out and make it look like I did something wrong.”
Manning left the meeting with Christiana, and later that night vented his frustrations with The Times on his campaign’s Facebook page.
“I pledged to run a respectful and civil campaign. And I am,” Manning wrote.
“So I am officially and respectfully stating that I have had enough of the ‘Failing Beaver County Times’ and their disingenuous reporting … Stop with the innuendos and deceptive headlines and reporting.”
Manning went on to say that most of the paper’s “competent reporters and editors” have “bailed,” and that he has served as a reference for several of them as they sought employment opportunities elsewhere.
“It must be heartbreaking to see the crap they publish on a daily basis,” he continued.
The next morning, last Friday, BeaverCountian.com received a strange email from former chamber employee Tawnya Roman.
“I was informed today that the board believes I came to you with information regarding my departure from the chamber. As you and I know, that is not true. Apparently, a call was placed to the chamber office, which revealed information that was accurate and was assumed to be leaked by me.
“I would greatly appreciate it if you would clarify it was not me. Since the board assumed it was me because your information was accurate, would it not make a better story to know there is an insider still at the chamber who is revealing information?
“I would greatly appreciate it if I can be excluded from assumptions in any publications. Thank you,” she ended.
BeaverCountain.com had not placed a call to the chamber, but was aware from its own reporting that Roman had secretly given an interview on background to Kurutz earlier in the week.
In a call by BeaverCountian.com to Roman in response to her email, she talked about what led up to her interview with Kurutz.
“Daveen reached out to me first. I told her I didn’t want to talk to her. She told me in writing she could offer me anonymity. I waited about two days then I called her.”
Roman said she was hesitant to speak with Kurutz, but she was encouraged to by Emily Konecheck, the other chamber staffer who resigned at the same time.
According to Roman, she and Konecheck weren’t exactly friendly when they worked together, but Konecheck began calling her frequently after she found out Roman intended to resign.
Konecheck did not return a message left by BeaverCountian.com seeking comment.
Roman said that when she called Kurutz, the reporter put her mind at ease and the two spoke for about 45 minutes.
“(Kurutz) told me her goal was to figure out the lesser of two evils between (Democratic commissioner candidate) Dennis Nichols and (Jack Manning),” Roman said.
“I ended up talking to her, she agreed our conversation would go no further, it was completely confidential … completely off the record and she promised me complete anonymity.”
Camp admitted to BeaverCountian.com earlier in the week that he had been talking to Kurutz about upcoming articles involving Manning, and that Kurutz had informed him that she had conducted the interview. But Manning said Camp later sent him a text message telling him that he had no idea what was happening.
Roman acknowledged that she had told Konecheck about her interview with Kurutz, but said she has not spoken with any politicos.
“I have not talked to Jim Christiana ever. I’ve never met him.”
Christiana confirmed he does not know Roman. Camp confirmed the same.
As for why Roman resigned from the chamber?
“I put my notice in just because in general I was asked to do accounting work that I wasn’t comfortable doing,” Roman said.
“Some things I thought were questionable that could have been correct. … I am not a CPA (Certified Public Accountant), I was being asked to do things above my level of training. I don’t have an accounting background. … I went to the auditors with it, which started a whole shit and I ended up leaving.”
Roman said she did not want to go to Manning with her questions because she felt he would react negatively.
Manning said the chamber regularly consults with an outside CPA, and the chamber’s books are routinely reviewed by the firm.
“They are on-call and give us bookkeeping advice on a regular basis, on features with (accounting software) Quickbooks, or accounting principles, anytime we have questions we will call them on a regular basis throughout the year.
“The (last annual) audit was for the 2018 year and our auditors have not found anything material to change the financial look of the chamber. That will be reported and reviewed with the full chamber board at our next meeting in September.
“As always, we have had for many years a very good, clean, audit review,” Manning said.
Manning refused to comment about his interactions with Roman or about her job performance, saying those questions delved into personnel matters that he could not address because of his professional obligations to the chamber.
Others BeaverCountian.com spoke with pointed to a lawsuit Roman filed against another former employer. Federal court dockets show she had alleged her previous boss had engaged in harassing behavior against her. Roman’s litigation against that company was settled last year, the terms of which were not disclosed.
Following its conversation with Roman, BeaverCountian.com called Kurutz seeking comment about the woman’s assertions. Although Kurutz never did provide comment to BeaverCountian.com, she did call Roman back.
Kurutz’s article was published the following day, early in the morning on Saturday, headlined: “Beaver County Chamber of Commerce chairman: Board taking allegations against executive director ‘very seriously’.”
She wrote, “On Friday, former office manager and finance director Tawnya Roman told The Times that when she questioned the accounting procedures that Manning wanted her to follow, he would make derogatory remarks about her to other employees and board members.”
The next day, Sunday, the newspaper published an editorial that praised Kurutz’s reporting (comparing her to acclaimed White House correspondent Helen Thomas), criticized Manning, and ended by commending the way Camp conducts his campaign.
The editorial dumped a load of dirty laundry on Manning, making accusations that were not backed up by any of its prior reporting.
“We understand that a candidate has a life outside of running for office. But when you’ve signed an agreement with your employer to keep your campaign and your job separate, that also should indicate you won’t be taking meetings about your campaign in your office. Manning has held closed-door meetings at his chamber office with his campaign manager, Lindsay Courteau, and campaign treasurer Scott Monit.”
Chamber Board Chairman Sam Huston told BeaverCountian.com on Sunday that Manning did not violate his contract.
“Our agreement with Mr. Manning provides that he would not conduct any campaigning while tending to chamber business … we do not believe that the agreement was violated.”
Courteau and Monit both told BeaverCountian.com they were stunned to see their names being used by the paper as a weapon against a man they deeply respect, and that no one from the paper ever bothered to call either of them before making what each say are patently false claims.
“No one from The Times contacted me,” Corteau said.
“I have had meetings at the chamber with Jack because I am a Government Affairs Committee member for the chamber and I serve as the Education Subcommittee chair … My meetings with him were in that role, none of them were ever campaign related.”
Monit said he has never had a meeting of any kind with Manning at the chamber.
“No one from The Times called me,” Monit said.
“I have been at the chamber office twice probably in the past four years. Once after-hours to drop off a check and once to meet up with Jack to leave for lunch.”
The Times Editorial also pointed to Manning’s Facebook posts as proof he had been campaigning while conducting chamber business.
“A typical candidate isn’t going to attend a Washington or Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce event or tour a local dairy farm. We ask, is he using his standing with the nonprofit to further his political campaign?”
Manning said he is disgusted by what he calls the paper’s lack of journalistic integrity. Manning alleges the paper has misquoted him to make his comments fit the narratives of its articles and said he has had enough of the paper’s innuendoes that go contrary to fact.
“I am at all of these non-Beaver County Chamber events because I am personally connected to these organizations, financially contributed to them, or otherwise work to help them. …
“I attend Washington or Lawrence County Chamber events because I’ve been a consultant on economic development for years. … I was at the farm event because I have been a personal member of the Beaver/Lawrence Farm Bureau for years.
“I don’t so much as have an ‘I Back Jack’ button on when I’m at a Big Brothers Big Sisters event, the United Way, the NAACP, or any of the other nonprofit organizations that I support.
“This isn’t some new phenomenon for me, I’ve been supporting these types of organizations for 15 years now. … The Times would know that if it ever bothered to call any of them. Unlike my opponents I don’t just show up because there’s an election. I don’t work the rooms or work the tables, I am there to support them.”
While its editorial went after Manning’s Facebook activity, it failed to mention Camp’s official Facebook page, which mixes photos in his role as county commissioner at the airport receiving the casket of a dead soldier with posts seeking political donations for fundraising events in support of his reelection campaign.
The Sunday editorial also finally revealed to readers that Times Publisher Tina Bequeath sits on the chamber’s board and that the newspaper is a chamber member, which Kurutz hadn’t disclosed in any of her articles concerning Manning.
As the negative reporting was rolling out from The Times, several people in the community began notifying BeaverCountian.com about robocalls that flowed across the county from the Camp campaign in support of his reelection.
Manning remains flabbergasted at coverage by the Times. But Christiana told BeaverCountian.com it all comes with the territory.
“I think every candidate who runs for office could pick apart random articles that they didn’t think were fair,” Christiana said.
“If there was a systematic pattern of an agenda then I would speak up. Being in politics for 15 years now, I don’t think there is much benefit in whining about those isolated articles.”
LOOKING BACK AND AHEAD
Looking back at the past two weeks, Manning said he is shell-shocked by the shenanigans that have left him marred in controversy.
“Maybe it’s because I was the top vote-getter in the (Republican) primary, maybe that scared some people who have a vested financial interest in the other Republican candidate winning this fall,” Manning postulated.
Camp and Manning were the only Republicans on the spring ballot, but Manning bested him by 470 votes.
The two will face off against current Democratic Commissioner Tony Amadio and fellow Democrat Nichols, who previously served as a Republican commissioner but changed his party affiliation to Democrat after losing reelection in 2016.
The four men in the race will be whittled down by voters to a board of three in November.
While Roman made it very clear she does not want to see Manning become county commissioner, believing he lacks the proper temperament, she acknowledged that even she had been told of Camp’s involvement in recent reporting by The Times.
“I heard that Dan (Camp) was talking to (Kurutz) but I didn’t know it as fact,” Roman said.
“I asked the person who told me why he would do that – the explanation that I was told was that Dan felt maybe there was only room for one Republican to win the race.”
Camp told BeaverCountian.com on Sunday he had nothing to do with any effort to undermine Manning’s candidacy and was unaware that Christiana had asked Manning to drop out of the race.
“Yes, despite all of the reporting by The Times, I am still backing Jack,” Camp insisted.
Camp’s current fellow Republican on the board of commissioners, Sandie Egley, said on Sunday that she’s not at all surprised by recent events.
Egley alleges she has experienced similar unfair treatment.
“These dramatized articles about Jack Manning are just a distraction,” Egley said.
“This is not about Jack Manning. It’s not about his integrity, his experience or his character. It’s about what threatens the balance of power.
“My takeaway is that the power players need a candidate they can control.”
BeaverCountian.com contributing editor Lori Boone contributed to this report.