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Franklin Area Academic Boosters endorsements scrutinized

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A Murrysville-area academic group is being investigated by the Westmoreland County district attorney after it was accused of violating election-finance laws.

District Attorney John Peck said his office is looking into a series of complaints received about the Franklin Area Academic Boosters, a group that bills itself as a nonpartisan, grassroots organization. The complaints, submitted to the Westmoreland County Election Bureau, accuse the group of not filing campaign-finance reports despite publicly issuing endorsements for school board candidates.

“The problem was that they were supporting candidates and influencing the election,” said Jim Montini, director of the bureau. Montini said he received three complaints during the May primary race and three more during the general- election season. He would not divulge who filed the complaints.

Michelle McFall, who acted as spokeswoman for the group during the primary, said Monday neither she nor anyone else involved with the group was aware of the investigation. She said she does not think the group in any way violated campaign-finance law.

“Under the umbrella of a grassroots organization, we felt we were doing the community a great service by offering them a differing point of view from MERC,” McFall said. “Our budget, if we did indeed have one, was so low.”

It's not the size of the budget that matters, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

All organizations that offer endorsements are required to file paperwork showing where the money to fund that endorsement came from, Madonna said.

“The public has a right to know who is directly contributing to candidates,” Madonna said. “It's neither good nor bad. It's to be sure that we know who's involved in influencing an election.”

Commonly referred to as FAAB, the group — which is not affiliated with the school district — endorsed three incumbent school board members and one newcomer in the primary election. Their endorsements were publicized through press releases and a full-page color ad in the May 16 edition of the Murrysville Star. The exact price of the ad wasn't immediately available but was at least $518.

FAAB endorsed Kimberly Bondi, Dennis Irvine, Paul Scheinert and newcomer Bobbi Watt-Geer. The Murrysville-Export Republican Committee chose to endorse four newcomers — George Harding, Susan Ilgenfritz, Gregg Neavin and Jeremy Samek — who ultimately received the Republican nominations. FAAB's endorsed candidates received the Democratic nominations.

Arguments over the endorsements played out in several letters to the editor published before the election.

According to the group's Facebook page, its mission is “To support the Franklin Regional School District's mission of “striving for excellence, learning, achievement and citizenship in all we do” by emphasizing academic integrity, collaborative partnerships, advocacy and engagement.”

The group was formed in spring of 2012 by local parents and community members.

FAAB hasn't met formally as a group since after the primary, McFall said.

“It's a great accomplishment for us to have the community recognize us as advocating for quality education,” McFall said. “We were an alternative to a much more powerful group that suggested shutting down full-day kindergarten, closing Newlonsburg (Elementary School), cutting business classes.”

Montini said he regularly encounters campaign-finance issues but not like this one.

“It can be considered out of the ordinary,” Montini said.

He said the group could face fines of up to $250 per violation.

Peck said he could not comment on the investigation.

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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