In-Depth: No punches held as Lebanon County Republicans splinter along Commissioners race

10 min read893 views and 69 shares Posted May 17, 2019

It’s been a bruising race even by modern standards, but this year’s Republican primary for Lebanon County Commissioner is almost over.

Lebanon County Republican Committee Treasurer Matt Shirk launched his campaign in December, citing claims of nepotism by sitting Lebanon County Commissioner Bill Ames. At the time his campaign began, Shirk identified a few incidents that made him perceive this conflict of interest, namely the 2017 run by Ames’ stepson Doug Cheyney for Register of Wills.

Shirk also alleged conflict of interest in the hiring of Doug Cheyney’s wife, Julia Cheyney, as director of the Lebanon County Planning Department, a process from which Ames had recused himself as reported in the Lebanon Daily News at the time.

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Back in 2017, the Daily News quoted both Cheyney and the third competitor for the Register of Wills position, Jennifer Oh, as saying the GOP nomination process was broken, with Cheyney alleging outright that a father-son duo of Mike and Casey Long had undermined the democratic process. “The problem is Casey and his dad have compromised the integrity of the system,” said Cheyney in 2017.

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Casey Long is the current Chairman of the Lebanon County Republican Committee, a position that his father, lobbyist Michael Long, formerly held. Both Longs have worked for State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-25) and now work together at Long, Nyquist, & Associates, where Michael Long is a founding partner of the firm.

Two years later, the same allegations are being made against the Longs, and then some.

Shirk gets the Republican Committee nomination

In March, the Lebanon County Republican Committee voted to endorse Shirk over Ames in a move that was criticized by other Lebanon County elected officials including State Senator Mike Folmer (R-Senate District 48),  State Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102), and State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-101).

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The all-committee vote followed eight regional district meetings where candidates presented to the committee members present.

In an interview at the time with LebTown, Casey Long said this was a “clear statement” from committee members that they wanted to see change with the county commissioners. “I think what it came down to was really leadership style and how Commissioner Ames has conducted himself,” said Long. “Matt Shirk represented a positive vision and a fresh voice as far as the future of our county, and the committee members really appreciate that and we think the voters will, too.”

Acknowledging the similar voting record of Ames and the other Republican incumbent, County Commissioner Bob Phillips, Long pointed to a single voting difference involving a site-specific tax incentive plan in Lebanon County (paywall). Ames told LebTown at the time that he felt the leadership committee team had turned their backs on him for personal reasons, and that the single vote was picked up because it happened to be one of few voting differences that existed between Ames and Phillips.

Over the campaign, an aggressive set of ads has been run by Better PA PAC, a committee registered to the offices of Long, Nyquist, & Associates and represented by Mike Barley, who also works at the firm.

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When we spoke with Casey Long in March, he would not directly address his relationship with the PAC, but said that he did not organize the committee and additionally noted that there was no direct coordination with candidates.

One of Better PA PAC’s early and notable advertising efforts was an ad published by the Hummelstown Sun in its February 14 edition.

The ad uses a referral letter by District Attorney Dave Arnold to suggest that Ames is under investigation for “alleged illegal taxpayer funded campaign activity.” DA Arnold confirmed the legitimacy of the letter to LebTown but noted at the time that he was unable to share the original complaint and that his office had previously denied a Right-to-Know request relating to this matter.

In an editorial published later, Hummelstown Sun Editor Drew Weidman said that he ran ads unless they were “inciting a riot or patently false”, but followed up on this one after a reader pointed out that the attorney general closed the case for lack of sufficient evidence. Weidman more recently called out this investigation as an example of wasting time and energy.

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In April, Lebanon County was removed from a “sanctuary county” list maintained by the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent think-tank. The County Commissioners made the argument that the entire designation was in fact erroneous, and that the County received this label due to misinterpretation of a 2008 revision of Lebanon County Prison’s policy on ICE detainers. This “sanctuary county” status was used in attack ads against Ames, whose campaign ran advertising on LebTown responding to what they called a false claim.

Election sign removal leads to citation for Ames volunteer

On April 27, an Ames campaign volunteer, Gordon Tomb, was issued a non-traffic citation by North Londonderry Township Police for Disorderly Conduct involving the removal of a total of 12 political signs from the entrance area of Walmart over three separate occasions.

Better PA PAC spokesman Mike Barley said that the charges stemmed from a call the PAC made to North Londonderry Township Police after noticing that their signs started to disappear. “Eventually the police said, ‘Who do you think is stealing this?’ By virtue of knowing what the sign said, we believed the Ames campaign would be doing that,” he said.

When LebTown spoke with Tomb by phone last week, he admitted to taking the signs, noting that he believed the signs were intentionally misleading and meant primarily to incite the campaign. “I thought I had no choice but to go out and remedy the situation,” he noted. Tomb plans to fight the charges, but did note that he had also admitted to police that he had taken the signs. “The bottom line, I could not lie to a police officer, and I’m not going to lie about it.”

In an emailed statement, Tomb followed up. “The plaintiff, Better PA PAC, and Mike and Casey Long who hide behind that PAC, are legendary for their tactics of deceit and intimidation in political campaigns,” said Tomb. “Any time I am at the opposite end of an issue from them is a good thing, whether that is inside or outside a court.”

Better PA PAC spokesman Barley said, “They were trying to shield the public from the message, which they might not like but it’s true. If our signs were not legal to be there, neither were theirs. In our opinion, it was a First Amendment issue.”

“If he thought there was something factually inaccurate with that, he could have written a cease and desist letter,” said Barley.

“Mr. Tomb absolutely acted of his own accord,” said Ames campaign spokesperson Lauri-Jo Folmer. “We certainly understand and share his frustration over the signs, but we do not  – and will not – authorize or condone such actions.”

Folmer called Better PA PAC’s signs “yet another disingenuous attempt to fool the public into believing Bill Ames acted alone for the last seven years in the county courthouse,” noting that Phillips had an “equal hand” in the decisions for which Better PA PAC was criticizing Ames.

“We cannot fathom why anyone who allegedly cares about Lebanon County’s future or a ‘Better Pennsylvania’ would attempt to deceive the public by splitting hairs in such bizarre fashion,” said Folmer.

Casey Long’s resignation requested by Lebanon County legislators

Around the same time, with a letter dated April 28 and shared with the media on May 3, Lebanon County legislators State Sen. Folmer, State Rep. Diamond, and State Rep. Ryan went public with a request that Casey Long resign from his position as Chair of the Lebanon County Republican Committee.

“It is with deep regret that we write to request your immediate resignation as Chairman of LCRC,” wrote the elected officials, who accused Long of using Better PA PAC to obscure his involvement in a smear campaign, calling that particular action “disgusting” and describing one of the ad campaigns as “a thinly-veiled racist attempt to underscore misinformation touted by [Better PA PAC’s] radio ads.”

That ad in question—see below—actually appears to be an edited version of a Republican Party of Pennsylvania ad that ran for an unrelated race in the 26th State Senate District. “Parts of other mailers are commonly used in campaigns,” said Barley. “In this case, Mr. Vasquez shows what can happen when a sanctuary county policy is followed.”

The letter makes a number of specific allegations against Casey Long. “Your actions during this campaign have fallen far short of the mark and are an absolute embarrassment,” wrote Folmer, Diamond, and Ryan. “We can no longer remain quiet. It’s time for you to step down as Chairman of the LCRC.”

Long responded with his own letter, rejecting the request for him to step down and said that the three Lebanon County legislators were attempting to buck the will of the LCRC.

Shirk sues PAC over ShadyShirk.com

Over the course of the election, Shirk has also been the target of negative advertising run primarily through social media posts.

These Facebook pages include Even Better PA PAC, and Leading Lebanon Valley PAC, originally called Leadership Lebanon Valley PAC (not related to the similarly-named leadership development program).

The organizers of Leading Lebanon Valley PAC were named in a false and defamatory information lawsuit filed on behalf of Shirk this week. The lawsuit names Katy F. Abram as the PAC’s Chairwoman and her husband & North Cornwall Township Supervisor Samuel D. Abram as the PAC’s treasurer. The lawsuit alleges that the Abrams operated the website ShadyShirk.com and used it to publish “false and incendiary claims.” The only claim specifically alleged to be baseless is a statement that Shirk’s “home is under foreclosure.” The lawsuit says that the PAC responded to an April 11 letter requesting the removal of the website by only removing the foreclosure allegation.

The lawsuit claims that Shirk at this point “resolved to refrain from taking any further action against the PAC or the Abrams.” It notes that his decision changed April 28 when the PAC repeated the foreclosure allegation on its Facebook page. The lawsuit alleges that the posting of the information was defamatory and caused Shirk irreparable harm.

The lawsuit does not dispute the veracity of the documents posted to ShadyShirk.com. These documents—which have been widely circulated during the campaign, including mailings to LebTown—have been used by Shirk’s critics to depict a person with questionable financial and business experience as well as personal turmoil. The documents include a Not Guilty plea for operating the craft winery Adams Vintners in Annville without a business license, as well as others showing a lawsuit over credit card debt, a tax lien from the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, a court document detailing a court battle regarding custody of Shirk’s children, etc. The website also notes the withdrawal of the endorsement for Shirk by Lebanon Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #42.

In a statement to the Daily News, Shirk said, “I understand that Bill Ames’ supporters want to discuss my personal finances and I will admit that, like many, I ran into some financial difficulties when I started a small business.” He also told reporter Andrew Kulp that he has paid off nearly all of his debt.

The Daily News also received comment from Reilly Wolfson, which is representing the Abrams. “Mr. Abram is of the belief that Mr. Shirk’s lawsuit is entirely without merit,” said lawyer Andrew J. Race according to the News’ article.

Shirk’s lawsuit has been called a “frivolous SLAPP lawsuit” by Simon Campbell, the operator of a website that advocates for the support of a House Bill sponsored by Diamond. Standing for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”, SLAPPs were explained in a January Facebook post that these lawsuits are characterized as being filed against a person or organization for statements made, or positions taken, in connection with matters of public interest or regulation.

$65,000 donation from Long-related campaign firm for Shirk

On Monday, Friends of Matt Shirk reported a $65,000 contribution from LN Consulting, a Pennsylvania LLC registered in 2009 by Michael Long and Todd Nyquist that operates from the same address as the duo’s law firm.

Lebanon County legislators Folmer, Diamond, and Ryan renewed their calls for Long’s resignation in the wake of the donation. In a press release they allege that the last minute cash infusion is being used to fund a “a negative and misleading TV ad campaign.”

“This should offend every single person in Lebanon County who earns less than $65,000 a year,” said Diamond in the release.

“Enough is enough,” said Ryan in the release. “We elected Donald Trump to go down to Washington DC to drain the swamp, but we obviously have a real swamp right here in Lebanon County that we need to drain.”

“These people should be ashamed of what they’re willing to sacrifice for the sole purpose of obtaining and holding on to raw political power,” said Folmer.

No calm expected before Tuesday’s electoral storm

LebTown reached out to all campaigns today for their closing comments on the race, and heard back from the Ames and Phillips campaigns. Shirk did not respond to our request for comment.

Lauri-Jo Folmer, spokesperson for the Ames campaign, singled out the $65,000 donation. “It takes a lot of money to sucker people into falling for bad ideas, so the outrageous last minute $65,000 contribution is only equaled in scope by the sheer ludicrousness of what their hand-picked candidate has been spouting all year,” she said in an email statement on behalf of the campaign. “Instead of being deceived by dark money Harrisburg hucksters and their snake oil sideshow, I believe responsible Republicans will cast their vote for the County Commissioner who has worked tirelessly for the last 7 years to make Lebanon County stronger, safer and smarter in a fiscally responsible manner.”

“I ask all responsible Republicans to cast their vote for Bill Ames,” added the Ames campaign spokesperson.

In a statement released to LebTown, Phillips noted, “I am not publicly supporting any other candidate for Lebanon County Commissioner.”

“My campaign has consistently indicated from the start of this election cycle our goal to run a campaign independent from any other candidate(s),” he said. “We have provided a positive message to the voters of Lebanon County and humbly request their vote on Tuesday, May 21st.”

Campaign activity will continue full force through the weekend, and not just on the airwaves.

This morning Diamond announced that he, Ryan, and Folmer would be holding a media event on the front steps of the Lebanon County Courthouse Saturday at 5:00pm. Diamond said that the media event will focus on the dynamics and usualness of the Commissioners race, as well as how it relates to other races in the county.

See the full primary ballot here. The primary election will be held Tuesday.

See a list of polling locations here.

Read More: New polling places for May 21 primary, last election before new voting machines

Full Disclosure: Some current Republican party candidates are advertisers on LebTown, including the campaigns of Bill Ames and Bob Phillips. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.

Matt Reigle and Joshua Groh contributed to this article.

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