The 1776 Project political action committee, which financially supported the BMW Slate of Tara Battaglia, James Miller and Steve Whisler during the 2022 campaign for school board, has been fined $20,250 for failing to identify itself as having paid for 13,879 text messages sent to Carroll County voters on or around Nov. 1, the Maryland state prosecutor announced Thursday.
Deputy state prosecutor Sarah David said this is the highest fine for an “authority line violation” issued by the state, but declined to comment further.
According to Politico, the 1776 Project PAC is based in New York and has financial backing from Republican megadonor and billionaire Richard Uihlein. The PAC endorsed more than 100 school board candidates across the country, in Florida, Texas, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and put significant cash into helping them get elected, Politico reported.
Maryland law requires campaign messages sent on behalf of candidates to state who paid for the information to be distributed. This includes yard signs, pamphlets, and digital advertisements.
The text messages sent to Carroll County voters stated: “Stop indoctrination in our schools, early voting has started [sic] vote for the pro-parent ticket for school board Tara Battaglia, James Miller and Steve Whisler,” according to state prosecutors.
There was no “authority line” or information stating that the text was paid for by the 1776 Project PAC.
The state prosecutor said these types of violations have garnered minimal citations in the past, but digital technology allows the rapid dissemination of information, and necessitates more scrutiny.
“... The advent of advanced technology in campaigns, which allows candidates to access thousands of people with the press of the button, requires more scrutiny on ensuring the public knows who paid for information they receive about candidates,” an Oct. 12 news release from the prosecutor’s office states.
In the past, violators had to pay to reprint physical signs that were erroneously created without an authority line; now fines are the only financial recourse for electronic messaging without identification.
Board of Education member Steve Whisler said candidates are prohibited from interacting directly with PACs and he had no idea a message was sent on his behalf without an authority line.
“We had no direct interface with this PAC organization at all,” Whisler said. “We had no idea they were sponsoring us or even sending out mail on our behalf until we saw them popping up on our own mailboxes.”
Whisler applied to be endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC before the primary election and later noticed the group’s website reflected that the PAC endorsed his candidacy, he said, but he had no further interaction with the committee.
“The residents have a right to know who sent what and from what perspective the messaging is being sent,” Whisler said.
Carroll County Breaking News
During their 2022 campaigns, Whisler and Bataglia each received $8,580 for online advertising and printed brochures from the 1776 Project PAC through the D.C.-based Logan Circle Group, according to campaign finance records. The PAC also gave $8,580 to Miller, who lost in November, according to campaign finance records. Miller ran with Battaglia and Whisler on the BMW slate.
Battaglia now serves as the board’s vice president. She declined to comment directly about the PAC violations.
Jared DeMarinis, state administrator of elections at the Maryland State Board of Elections, said his office would continue working with state prosecutors and other enforcement partners, ”to ensure that there is no mystery about who is communicating with voters in Maryland elections.”
“Being able to identify the source of information for campaign material is essential to honesty and transparency in our electoral process,” Maryland state prosecutor Charlton Howard said in the release.