Records from Facebook’s Ad Library show that a Facebook page called “Joe Morrissey” spent between $500 and $999 promoting a video on Facebook, an outlay that the Democratic state senate candidate did not report to the Department of Elections in his most campaign finance report.
If Morrissey operates the page, that lack of disclosure would violate the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act Of 2006, which requires candidates to report spending if it exceeds $1,000 in statewide elections or $200 in other elections during an election cycle.
In an interview on Wednesday, Morrissey denied any wrongdoing, saying that another man, who he referred to as Mr. X in an earlier letter to the Department of Elections, created the video and also posted it to Facebook independently from Morrissey or his campaign committee. He seemed to suggest he was not in control of the page bearing his name that has over 17,000 followers; regularly posts interviews, campaign events, and campaign videos; and includes his campaign’s phone number and web address.
“The individual who prepared the video followed all of the campaign and political guidelines as set forth by Google,” Morrissey said, in response to a question about the Facebook ad. “You’ll need to speak to him because I didn’t put anything on my Facebook. He put it out, posted it, and disseminated it. ”
Morrissey declined to answer further questions, referring to his letter to the Department of Elections.
“I’m trying to be polite to you,” he said.
Screenshot of Facebook's Ad Library entry showing a March 10 ad originating on the Joe Morrissey Facebook page
In a May 10 letter to the Department of Elections, Morrissey suggested a slightly more active role for his campaign PAC, called the Morrissey for Senate 16 Exploratory Committee.
“Admittedly the Exploratory Committee did make [Mr. X’s] video documentary available to Internet users by running this video on Social Media and sharing it with others,” Morrissey wrote.
The ad also is written as if Morrissey is the author.
“Hey Folks, do you want to see me in the state Senate?" it asks. “Leave your thoughts below. I look forward to reading them!”
The Department of Elections can request that Morrissey correct an incomplete filing and fine him $100 if he fails to correct the filing within ten days. Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring can step in if he believes the violation is willful or can bring a more serious fraud charge.
Herring said he had no knowledge of any complaint being filed with his office.
“I really can’t say whether I’d pursue it,” he wrote in an email on Wednesday.
The possible omission might also open up Morrissey to class five felony fraud charges if prosecutors decide he made a “willfully false statement” on the report. Those charges come with a prison sentence of up to 10 years and fines of up to $2,500.
'Do You Want to See Me in the State Senate?'
The possible violation centers on a video posted on the page on March 8 entitled “Do You Want to See Me in the State Senate?”
Regardless of its origins, the video may push Richmond’s perennial rabble-rouser into dicey legal territory again. Morrissey’s last stint in office, as a member of the House of Delegates, was dogged by legal troubles involving his relationship with his 17-year-old receptionist, who went on to become his wife.
Deploying bass-heavy beats and swooping drone shots, the video shows residents of Virginia’s 16th Senate district giving Morrissey an emphatic thumbs up.
The video posted to the Joe Morrissey Facebook page on March 8.
The same day, the Department of Elections received Morrissey’s paperwork, signed on March 6 and 7, declaring that his mind was already made up and that he would seek the Democratic nomination against incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance. That timeline runs counter to Morrissey’s letter to the Department of Elections, in which he says he used the video to suss out a possible run.
“In all candor, it seemed to me that the public enjoyed the video and it got a good response from potential voters,” Morrissey wrote. “This suggested support if I should decide to become a candidate.”
Morrissey did not disclose any political expenditures or donations in the first quarter of 2019 on his only active political committee.
But Facebook’s Ad Library, which was set up in response to public pressure over the social media’s network’s handling of the 2016 elections, shows the Joe Morrissey Facebook page launched two ads featuring the video. The campaign began March 10. One ad cost under $100 and reached between 10,000 and 50,000 people, while another cost between $500 and $999, and reached between 100,000 and 200,000 people.
As Facebook has become a more common tool for political campaigns, Virginia candidates have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the platform, which they are then required to list on campaign disclosure forms submitted every quarter.
Stand By Your Ad
The video on Morrissey’s page came to the attention of the Department of Elections from a Stand By Your Ad complaint filed by Ngiste Abebe, a longtime Democratic organizer who currently heads Friends for Jennifer McClellan, a political action committee for Sen. McClellan (D-Richmond). Abebe said she filed the complaint in a personal capacity as a resident of the district, but declined further comment. She filed the complaint on April 16, the day after the deadline for candidates to submit their campaign finance reports to the state.
Abebe’s complaint goes beyond the confines of Stand By Your Ad, which requires candidates to disclose if they’ve produced a political ad, to accuse Morrissey of possible campaign finance violations.
In her complaint, Abebe says she received mailings from Morrissey “twice since December.”
“He also released a video in March that should be registering as an in-kind donation at least,” Abebe said, appearing to reference the Facebook video. “I’m concerned to see someone running who appears to not share a commitment to transparency.”
Morrissey discusses his bill to ban high capacity magazines as a delegate in 2013
In his written response to the complaint, Morrissey says the mailers and video were produced by Mr. X, whom he described as “an individual who urged me to consider entering the primary” who he says he operated without any involvement from Morrissey or his exploratory campaign committee. Morrissey also maintained that the materials were produced during the “testing the waters” phase of his campaign, and therefore fell within Mr. X's right to free speech rather than election law.
Rebecca Green, a professor of law at William and Mary’s who co-directs the college's Election Law Program, said that arguement contradicted state code.
“In Virginia, there are no separate rules for “exploratory committees,” Green said. “In this state, as soon as you start seeking or receiving funds or anything of value in pursuit of elected office, transparency rules kick in—regardless of whether you have filed a declaration of candidacy.”
“I naturally saw Mr. X filming my discussions with citizens and allowed him to do the filming,” Morrissey wrote. “I viewed his activities as I would a television station, podcast producer, or others involved in video production of political or news events.”
In the video, Morrissey can be seen handing out flyers emblazoned with “Joe Morrissey for State Senate.”
WCVE received the complaint, Morrissey’s response, and his filings to run for office in FOIA requests to the Department of Elections.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the Board of Elections decided to delay reviewing Adebe’s Stand By Your Ad complaint on the advice of Arielle Schneider, a policy analyst for the Department of Elections, who said she made the recommendation “because we haven’t received substantive information from either the candidate, Joe Morrissey, or an individual who may have been involved in advertising.”
Chris Ashby, an Alexandria-based attorney who focuses on political law, said Morrissey shouldn’t face any legal problems with the video and mailers themselves if he was honest about their origins.
“To hold someone who has not yet become a candidate responsible for expenditures made independently by zealous supporters would trample the First Amendment rights of citizens to 'draft' candidates into elections,” Ashby said.
But Ashby said candidates are responsible for reporting spending on the Facebook ads.
“If he’s filed as a candidate and spending money to promote his candidacy, then he should be disclosing that spending on campaign finance reports - when, as and to the extent required,” Ashby said.