CINCINNATI -- A complaint has been filed with Ohio election officials against a mysterious group that produced radio commercials and mass mailings in Cincinnati’s recent mayoral and city council elections.
Local resident Shirlene Britton filed the complaint against “Cincinnatians for Jobs Now” with the Ohio Elections Commission.
In the complaint, Britton said the organization didn’t register with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office or file a designation of treasurer, which is required under state law for groups that spend money advocating or opposing candidates in elections.
Also, the organization didn’t file any campaign finance reports with the Hamilton County Board of Elections, which is required under state law.
The Ohio Elections Commission has scheduled a preliminary hearing in the case for Feb. 20.
Any “political contributing entity” that doesn’t register with the Secretary of State’s Office could face fines of $15 to $500 per day, if found in violation by the commission.
Further, any group that doesn’t file campaign finance reports could face fines of $15 to $100 per day.
“It’s a deliberate attempt to avoid campaign finance disclosure,” said Curt Hartman, Britton’s attorney.
“People are not willing to stand up and say who they are supporting, so they’re creating a front group to do their dirty work for them,” he added.
Britton, the plaintiff, is a member of the local NAACP’s executive committee. Until recently, Councilman Christopher Smitherman served as the group’s president.
Cincinnatians for Jobs Now filed as a nonprofit group – but not as a political action committee, or PAC – on Sept. 17, 2013. That was less than two months before the Nov. 5 election.
During the next seven weeks, the groups sent multiple mass mailings to thousands of Cincinnati voters.
The literature included:
- At least four separate flyers urging support for Democrat Michelle Dillingham, a first-time candidate for Cincinnati City Council;
- At least three flyers supporting incumbent Councilman Chris Seelbach, a Democrat;
- At least two flyers supporting incumbent Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, a Democrat cross-endorsed by the Charter Committee;
- At least two flyers supporting most of the Democratic slate of candidates for City Council, including mayoral candidate Roxanne Qualls; and
- One flyer opposing the reelection of incumbent Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an independent.
But it’s a radio commercial that targeted Smitherman that is the complaint’s primary focus.
The ad featured an audio clip of Smitherman singing “Lift Every Voice and Song” taken from a since-defunct radio show hosted by the councilman.
As the song played in the background, an announcer said:
Chris Smitherman likes to sing the black national anthem, but he doesn’t support our issues. Smitherman has formed an alliance with the tea party, who is trying to destroy our community and government. While on council, Smitherman voted to cut healthcare for our community; Smitherman voted against funding African-American businesses; and Smitherman sided with fat cat developers who don’t want to hire local workers from our community. Yes, Smitherman has sold us out to the tea party.
So let us march on. This Tuesday, Nov. 5, don’t vote for the tea party’s candidate. Vote for anybody but Smitherman for council. Paid for by Cincinnatians for Jobs Now, Jonathon White, trustee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s campaign committee.
Smitherman’s supporters have called the ad racist and inaccurate.
WCPO’s attempts to reach White were unsuccessful. The telephone number listed for Cincinnatians for Jobs Now has been disconnected.
But research by WCPO indicates the group has ties to local and state labor unions.
The address listed for the group is for a house of Fairfax Avenue in Evanston. The now vacant home is owned by Unity Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. Dock Foster, the church’s pastor, is a Smitherman supporter who has said he has no connection to Cincinnatians for Jobs Now.
The house once was leased to Laborers Local 265, Foster said. Rob Richardson Sr., who once unsuccessfully challenged Smitherman for the presidency of the NAACP’s local chapter, heads local 265.
Additionally, a WCPO photographer took photos of a person handing out flyers for Cincinnatians for Jobs Now outside polls on Election Day.
The person is Mike Engbert, who’s been identified in other media stories as a spokesman for the Laborers' International Union and Ohio Laborers' District Council.
WCPO reached Engbert by telephone at his home in Westerville, a Columbus suburb.
“No one ever hired me for that,” Engbert said, referring to passing out flyers. “I’m just a big supporter for local jobs.”
Asked why a Columbus area resident would care about Cincinnati elections or jobs, Engbert replied, “It doesn’t matter the city. Jobs in whatever city should go to that city’s residents.”
Engbert referred further questions to the Laborers’ District Council’s Columbus office. A person at that office referred WCPO
to Local 265’s Cincinnati office.
Two messages left by telephone at Local 265’s office weren’t returned.
Richardson’s son, attorney Rob Richardson Jr., has been a frequent Smitherman critic on his radio talk show.
Richardson and Local 265 support Cincinnati’s “Responsible Bidder” law, which Smitherman has tried to repeal.
The law, approved by the previous City Council, imposes restrictions on companies submitting bids to do work for the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD).
About $3.2 billion in contracts to improve and upgrade the aging sewer system will be issued during the next 15-20 years.
Hamilton County owns MSD, but Cincinnati operates the system under a contract.
County officials have said city policies shouldn’t affect MSD. As a county-owned entity, only state laws should apply, they added.
Numerous county sewer projects have been stopped until the impasse is resolved.
Under a provision approved by City Council in May, any contractor doing work on MSD projects valued at $400,000 or more must offer an apprenticeship program to train new workers.
The provision’s critics said it makes it difficult for non-unionized companies to be awarded any MSD contracts.
Last week City Council voted 5-4 – along party lines – to keep the provision.
Hartman questioned why the only two people known to be involved with Cincinnatians for Jobs Now – Engbert and White – are from out of town.
“Something is not quite right when two guys, one in Dayton and one in Columbus, are coming down to get involved in a Cincinnati race,” Hartman said.
“The whole thing clearly was being orchestrated locally,” he added. “Somebody else was calling the shots.”
For more stories by Kevin Osborne, visit www.wcpo.com/osborne . Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwcpo