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Allegheny

Rothfus letter to 499 constituents ducks federal law on mass mailers by 1

| Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, 10:33 a.m.
In this May 1, 2018 file photo Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus sits outside a coffee shop in downtown Beaver, Pa. A congressman since 2013, Rothfus faces a tough re-election battle in Pennsylvania’s newly created 17th District against Democrat Conor Lamb, who won a special election House victory earlier this year. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
In this May 1, 2018 file photo Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus sits outside a coffee shop in downtown Beaver, Pa. A congressman since 2013, Rothfus faces a tough re-election battle in Pennsylvania’s newly created 17th District against Democrat Conor Lamb, who won a special election House victory earlier this year. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Technically, it’s not a mass mailer.

So the letter Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, sent to 499 constituents last week isn’t subject to a federal law that prohibits him from sending official mail to 500 people or more within 90 days of an election.

But it did raise concerns when shared with Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan political reform group Issue One.

“If you’re trying to get around the rules by playing with the technical number, we still think that’s activity that members of Congress should avoid,” said Tyler Cole, the group’s legislative director. “It’s not a good use of taxpayer money, and it’s a little unseemly.”

Sent in an envelope marked “official business,” the letter introduced itself as “an update on the actions we have taken in Congress to create well-paying jobs,” and went on to discuss Rothfus’ support for repealing a medical device tax and blocking a tax on high-cost health insurance. The letter was dated Sept. 11.

Rothfus, 56, a former attorney, is pursuing a fourth term in the Nov. 6 election.

“This particular communication is not a mass mailer, and was sent in compliance with the House rules regarding communication with constituents of Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District,” Rothfus spokeswoman Anna Fronzaglia said in an emailed statement.

Rothfus represents the 12th Congressional District. He is running for re-election in the newly drawn 17th Congressional District. Parts of the 12th and 17th districts overlap, meaning some constituents in Rothfus’ current district will see him on the ballot in his new district. The overlapping portion covers parts of Beaver County and Allegheny County.

Had it been sent to 500 people or more, the letter by law would have had to include a statement saying that it was paid for with taxpayer dollars. The letter doesn’t say that, and Fronzaglia didn’t respond to a question about how much the letter cost to mail out.

“Oftentimes, the act of being an elected official is very much linked to the campaign you’re going to run. They’re going to get a certain benefit from that,” Cole said. “I think that’s different from trying to exploit the rules by trying to gain some electoral advantage by making sure you’re just at the point of making sure you’re not across the line. You would hope members of Congress would really want to abide by the spirit of the laws.”

Rothfus faces Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, in the 17th District race. Lamb, 34, a former federal prosecutor, won a special election in March to replace former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy in the 18th Congressional District.

Members of Congress have been allowed to send mail to their constituents without paying for postage since 1775. It is known as the franking privilege and considered an advantage for incumbent candidates. A 1997 law created the restriction on sending mass mailers within 90 days of an election.

Lamb held a double-digit lead over Rothfus in a July Monmouth University poll of the race. Both candidates had about $2 million in campaign coffers at the end of June, the last reported totals.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wes at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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