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Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Case Against Political Consultant Tom "Scissorhands" Severson

On Monday, I told you that political consultant Tom "Scissorhands" Severson is under investigation by a state grand jury. He's just been ordered to court on charges that arose from his threatening behavior during a funeral. That's really the least of his worries. He's made our electoral system a mockery by thumbing his nose at nearly every disclosure requirement. This is not just any political consultant, but by his own admission, the largest political consultant in the state. I've talked about Severson in many posts. Let me put it all together for you. I believe the evidence is damning.

Who is Tom Severson?

Severson, a Pen Argyl resident, conducts his political consulting through at least three different corporations. He usually operates under the corporate umbrella of Precision Marketing, Inc., where he is listed as company prez. Between 2000 and 2007, that company has collected $9.9 million from candidates seeking state offices.

But when Severson wants to stay under the radar, or is working for Dems, he's used MJR Services, Inc., a New Jersey corporation whose Pa. address just happens to be where Precision Marketing is located. MJR collected $281,000 from state office hopefuls between 2000 and 2007. DA John Morganelli and Judge Roscioli are part of this gaggle.

Severson also uses Political Strategies, Inc., a California corporation. Although it's not even registered in Pennsylvania, state senator Lisa Boscola paid that outfit $43,659.65 in 2006. Finance reports filed by local candidates indicate this California corporation just happens to have the same address as Precision Marketing! Since 2000, the total amount paid to this business, in state races, is $170,522.

This total figure - $10.35 million over 7 years - does not include payments to other companies I know nothing about, or payments made in federal and local races. And it only reflects payments that are on the radar screen.

Possible Violations

According to our Elections Code,

* A person who pays for a direct mailing or other ad designed to influence an election must "clearly and conspicuously" identify himself. The author can be anonymous, but the person who pays must disclose.

* Any person who spends more than $100 to advocate the defeat of a clearly identified candidate, is subject to the same reporting requirements as any candidate or committee.

* Any person making an independent expenditure of $500 or more after the final pre-election report, must report that expenditure within 24 hours.

* Corporate contributions are strictly prohibited.

Severson is also subject to the same reporting requirements as anyone else concerning income. Like everyone else, he is also obligated to pay sales and use tax.

Enforcement Must Come From Attorney General because DA has a conflict.

Political consultant Tom Severson and Northampton County DA John Morganelli have a relationship that goes back at least to 1991, when Severson ran John's campaign against then incumbent DA Don Corriere. That race, incidentally, turned nasty.

Morganelli has continued to use Severson, and has enlisted Severson's services for political allies seeking office. These include two of his former first assistant DAs, Paula Roscioli and Steve Baratta, who used Severson's services when they ran for judge, and won.

Over the years, Morganelli has formed a friendship with Severson. In his sixteen years as DA, I can't think of a single elections law prosecution. Knowingly or not, he has given Severson a green light to run wild.

In 2001, Moore Township resident Robert Welsh was the victim of a defamatory anonymous mailer when he sought public office, but Morganelli told him his hands were tied. "[I]t is perfectly permissible for any citizen to distribute anonymous literature to voters." He refused to investigate.

Under Morganelli's tortured interpretation of our election laws, there's no need to place a disclaimer on a campaign mailer. And if that s so, there s really no reason to file campaign finance reports at all. Why bother?

It's funny. Morganelli was all over AG Corbett when the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom (CFI) began a "public education" effort obviously designed to promote a candidate for the state high court. He demanded an injunction to force CFI to file a campaign finance report, the only remedy that would prevent irreparable harm in the closing days before the election.

But amazingly, Morganelli refused to lift a finger when local political consultant Tom Severson began his anonymous sleaze campaign against a local magisterial candidate last Spring. He reinained silent in July, when Severson started a push poll against county councilman Ron Angle, even though that expense appears nowhere on any campaign finance report, even as an in-kind corporate contribution. And when the anonymous robo calls began in earnest against council candidates Angle and Ferraro. Morganelli was MIA, even though campaign finance reports fail to reflect the amount of money being spent.

Morganelli and Severson are friendly, and John properly feels it would be a conflict to investigate him. But whenever he has referred a question to the state AG, it has always been a half-hearted request at best that frames the facts in a light favorable to Severson.

Severson's History

The phrase, "King of Sleazeball Politics," is used often to describe Severson. It first appeared in a 1991 Morning Call story. Severson got that title the old-fashioned way - he earned it. Let's review some of his campaigns.

In 1989, county exec hopeful Jerry Seyfried saw his lead dwindle as anonymous telephone calls, made in the waning days of the campaign, warned voters that Seyfried had accepted money from the owner of a local landfill. DA Don Corriere, challenged by Morganelli, complained they actually used callers who disguised themselves as state ethics commission investigators. Seyfried won. Barely. Corriere went down.

Severson also plays on prejudice. When Len Gruppo was running for the state senate in 1998, Severson distributed an anti-welfare campaign mailer containing a photo of mostly black applicants, standing in line, creating the false impression that most welfare recipients are black.

In 2003, Severson's Precision Marketing was paid $9,600 in public money by DA John Morganelli's Drug Task Force to distribute 20,000 "informational" mailers. They included a large photograph of Paula Roscioli, four times the size of other staffers. She just happened to be running for judge at the time. DA Morganelli assured the Express Times (4/9/03) that Precision Marketing was not doing Roscioli's campaign. While technically correct, Severson was still running the show. He just used another company. And the idea of using taxpayer funds to promote candidates was pushed again by Severson this Spring. Bucks County commissioners paid him $67,000 in taxpayer money for a thinly disguised campaign ad.

Last year, when Joe Brennan was in a four-way dogfight to capture the Democratic nomination for a state rep seat, he was assailed by three mailers, some of which falsely portrayed him behind bars. After turning over a few rocks, Tom Severson ran out. Brennan's opponent falsely claimed that, since he was never charged for Severson's services, he had no obligation to report this in-kind contribution. To this day, the in-kind contribution appears nowhere on any campaign finance report.

These are just a few examples of Severson's modus operand! - anonymous and misleading calls, appeals to prejudice, drug task force money to promote a candidate, misleading mailers and flying below the radar of our disclosure laws. As disgusting as these tactics sound, Severson has become rich using them.

Severson's Reputation Among Local Leaders

Although Severson's sleaze tactics have made him wealthy, few local leaders respect him. Morning Call and Express Times archives report some of their comments.

Former Norco GOP chair Charlie Roberts (1994): "He's working both sides of the fence. ... I don't trust him. ... He's done more to hurt this party than anyone. ... "How can he work for Seyfried and Ferraro in the same election? How is working for Seyfried going to do anything but hurt Ferraro's chances? Tom Severson works for his pocketbook. I work for the Republican Party."

Former Norco GOP Chair Larry Kisslinger (1991): "He did not handle his affairs with me in an honest way 99-1/2 percent of the time. ... I hope he makes $1 million. I hope he's comforted with the money surrounding him."

Former Norco Councilman Jim Hemstreet (1991): "If telephone calls are being made ... you have a right to know who you're talking to, what they're paid. ... That is really deceptive campaigning. It's like turning your campaign over to a hired gun."

Norco Judge Emil Giordano (1994): "I never heard anything good about the guy. ... It's sleazeball politics, and he's the leader of the pack."

Morning Call columnist Don Russo (1994, then a member of the GOP): "Severson basically goes to the candidate with the money."

District Attorney John Morganelli (1994): "I went to him because I heard he was the best. I wanted to hire the best person to do the job. I didn't care what party he was. The party thing didn't bother me, and I don't think it bothered Mr. Severson. He's staying with me."

The Anti-Monahan Sleaze

The smear campaign against magisterial candidate Brian Monahan in May '07 involves violations of every one of the potential violations listed above. Here's some of what former Northampton County Republican Chair Bob Kilbanks has said.

"This all began during the primary cycle when some very ugfy flyers were sent out against a local District Justice candidate. They had no disclaimer, which is required by Pennsylvania's state election laws on every campaign piece to inform the public about the source of any political information that they receive. There were accusations flying all over Northampton County as to who had sent the three mailers. The mailing permit was traced to a person [Pat Vulcanol who sard he had no knowledge of its use. An examination of the paperwork at the Post Office yielded nothing because the signature was unreadable. At that time, local blogger Bernie O'Hare presented the situation to District Attorney Morganelli. Mr. Morganelli told Mr. O'Hare that the matter, as he saw it, did not rise to a prosecutable level. He felt that there was case precedent from Ohio [Mclntyre v. Ohio Ejections Comm'nl that made this allowable under the First Amendment. A few days later, and under question of lawful filing date, an independent financial report was filed at the Voter Registrot/on office under the name of 'John Doe.'

"The report arrived complete with the Ohio decision attached to it and a notarization for a 'John Doe.' The Notary works in the offices of a local politically-connected attorney. [This attorney just happens to be Morganelli's campaign treasurer, Jay Leeson]."

Severson's "John Doe" report, of course, is a sham. He clearly paid more than $500 to send these mailers about a week before the election, but failed to report this expenditure within 24 hours as required by our campaign finance laws. Three mass mailings cost much more than the $861 claimed, and those payments had to be made before the primary, because that's when they were mailed.

How could Leeson's notary, a secretary in his office, acknowledge an anonymous signature? Because he tells her to do so. But a notary exists to identify the person appearing before her, not obscure that person. She must have personal knowledge or satisfactory evidence in the form of a driver's license or other form of identification.

Severson Admits He Did Anonymous Campaign Against Monahan

Not long after the mailings went out, I talked to District Attorney John Morganelli. I told him he could send a detective with Pat Vulcano, the bulk mail permit holder, and get all the records for the bulk mail permit. That way we'd know how much was paid for these three mailings and who sent them.

"I'm not going to do that."

"Why not?"

"I already know who sent those mailers. It's Severson."

Morganelli assures me anonymous mailers are legal, and handed me a pile of memos to that effect, but they involve inadvertent violations of elections laws. This is something different. I told John the law may permit anonymous mailings, but the person who pays for them must be identified. Finally, I told John these mailings violate other sections of the elections code, relating to reports.

"We'll have to wait and see," John answered.

Mclntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n Has no Application to the Anonymous Monahan Mailers

The Mclntyre case, on which Morganelli relies, applies to an Ohio statute requiring campaign literature to contain the name and address of the person or campaign official issuing the literature. In Pa., there is no blanket prohibition. You must spend over $100. And then, you are only required to identify the person who is paying to send the message. You need not identify the author.

Does Morganelli Have a Conflict or Not?

According to Kilbanks, "The Republican Committee wrote to Mr. Morqanelli and asked him to reexamine the papers because we were afraid that this precedent could lead to only more of the same unattributed smear literature, and perhaps even uglier campaign shenanigans. Mr. Morganelli replied to the Committee with the same answer he gave to Bernie O'Hare."

Rather than address Severson's failure to file a 24 hour report or his misleading "John Doe" statement, Morganelli instead incredibly concludes Severson has a constitutional right to defame someone anonymously. "[W]e will not attempt to enforce these provisions."

Here's my problem. Since Morganelli has a conflict in any allegations against Severson, it's not his call whether or not the elections code should be enforced. In fact, his letter to the Attorney General only dealt with one aspect of the elections code, and was even misleading on that point. Kilbanks' allegations should have been forwarded to the Attorney General so that office could have decided for itself whether an investigation is warranted.

The Dirty Politics Continue - July

In July 2007, Severson started a push poll against Angle. Telephone calls from 484-548-6413 asked whether voters would be less likely to vote against Angle if they knew certain negative things about him, which were listed, one by one. Although this poll has been estimated to cost $3,000, its cost is listed nowhere in any of the campaign finance reports listed by Angle's opponent, John Maher, or the Northampton County Democratic party. That telephone exchange has been used by Severson to conduct political polling and robo calls.

The General Election Against Angle and Ferraro.

Because Morganelli refused to make a prompt referral to the Attorney General last Spring, the dirty politics have continued. According to Kilbanks, "Our fears were realized in this past election cycle as unattributed, and very nasty, smear phone calls, whether or not they are considered 'legal,' invaded homes across Northampton County. All of the calls traced back to one phone number [actually, it's two phone numbers - 484-548-6400 and 484-548-64131 that [were] listed as 'not working,' but ownership was traced to a data management corporation in King of Prussia that does robo-calls."

Amazingly, these are the same phone numbers used to do the push polling against Angle in July. The number 484-548-6413 shows up as MCS Industries on Caller ID, and is also the number Lamont McClure used for his robocalls. His campaign consultant? Tom Severson.

Mailings with content identical to these anonymous robocalls were posted with the Northampton County Democratic Committee's bulk mail permit. Lamont McClure, Tony Branco, John Maher and the local Democratic party were obviously using Severson. Against Angle alone, there were twelve negativemailers (estimated cost - $36,000) and twenty-one anonymous robocalls (estimated cost - $21,000). Against Peg Ferraro, there are at least four negative mailers (countywide cost - $20,000) and ten anonymous robocalls ($10,000). The total amount of money estimates to be spent, just on the negative campaign, is $87,000.00.

Campaign finance reports filed by the opponents to Angle and Ferarro, as well as the local Democratic party, reveal much smaller sums. They only report spending and indebting themselves in the total amount of $54,000.00. These reports are shams and do not reflect the total amount of money being spent.

Is Severson accepting funds that are never reported on candidates' reports? Is he flying under the radar.

In addition to ab obvious funding disparity, this contention is corroborated by the following facts: First, a former Severson employee acknowledges that he has witnessed Severson making large cash deposits at banks other than those where his businesses are located; Second, checks that supposedly were being paid to Political Strategies, a California corporation, were in fact being deposited with Precision Marketing; and Third, there is a transcript claiming Severson forged names to campaign materials on behalf of MJR.

Other Campaign Violations in Other Counties

Severson's name has also been associated with anonymous mailers in a campaign over a referendum in Lower Macungie Township and in various Bucks County races for the GOP.

Severson's Erratic Behavior.

Severson's erratic behavior has already been demonstrated in an unemployment compensation case, where there was testimony about him making switchblade knives, threatening to kill and stab people, and threatening one of his own employees. In addition, he recently disrupted a funeral service simply because he saw Ron Angle in the crowd.

Sources:

Precision Marketing Corporate records:

$9.9 MM paid to Precision marketing since 2000 by candidates seeking state office:

MJR Services, Inc. corporate records:

Money paid to MJR by state candidates:

Political Strategies, Inc. corp. records:

Money paid to Political Strategies by state candidates:

Elections Code:

Anonymous mailers directed against magisterial candidate Brian Monahan

O'Hare email to DA Morganelli
John Doe Independent Expenditure report

Severson admits he is behind Monahan smear
The Monahan mudslinging

Notes about 1-484-548-6413
Notes about 1-484-548-6400

Campaign finance reports filed by Northampton County candidates in 2007 election
robocall recording

Anti-Angle mailers

Severson disrupts funeral services

Negative campaign against state rep. Joe Brennan engineered by Severson
Tom Severson's profitable world of sleaze politics

Unemployment compensation case against Severson - claimant transcript

Unemployment compensation case against Severson - findings of fact

25 comments:

Joe Hilliard said...

Isn't the act by the notary considered a felony under PA law?

Anonymous said...

Bernie

Where do you get your estimates of how much money was spent? Do you have copies of the mail pieces? Will you produce them? Do you have tapes of the phone calls? Will you produce them? Anything short of that makes your estimates lies!

Bernie O'Hare said...

I do have copies of some of the mailers. I do have an audiotape of one of the phone calls. I do have links to them at the end of my post. Estimates are based on conversations with a number of political consultants.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Isn't the act by the notary considered a felony under PA law?

I doubt that very much. This notary was following the instruction of her boss, who happens to be an attorney. There is no mens rea. I also have immense respect for the Leesons.

consigliere said...

this is really first-rate reporting on something important that the news media would never investigate, and wouldn't have the political sensibilities to handle.

stories like this are what the blogosphere does best, rather than the snarky back and forth which occupies too many entries.

i realize, though, that the extensive research and interviews precludes having daily features like this.

all in all, good job

Anonymous said...

Bernie is a pay to play guy. He took $60.00 as settlement in a case against Bethlehem Steel and forged his clients signature because he needed the money to pay a $60.00 filing fee. Wodda guy. And he wonders why he's being called a liar all the time. Would you trust Bernie?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Consigliere, Thanks for the nice words. One remark like that from you outweigh the personal slams that inevitably result when you pull the curtain away from those who have become too comfortable.

Anonymous said...

bern
nice job on scissorhands. known you for a lot of years, some people will never allow anything to just go away, even after we paid for our mistakes. your a good person BOH. Don't let some A-hole get you down. your always in my prayers. P.S. so is your jeep.

Anonymous said...

Ask Bernie about the $2.5 million dollar settlement he screwed that family out of in Scranton when he forged his signature, again, on a document that would have enabled them to survive after losing their husband and father. Bernie O'Hair is not credible is not credible.

Joe Hilliard said...

Anon 2:30

You must have studied at the Pawlowski school of diversion. Even if what you advocate is true about Bernie, it changes NOTHING about what he is reporting about.

This is typical political spin B.S.

Can you refute any facts he posted on this subject?

If you wish to 'out' Bernie, post something on your blog or another blog. However, if true, I am sure that Bernie has suffered the consequences of his actions. I don't know if true or not and don't really care too much. I have heard all the innuendos and rumors. Again, I don't care too much.

Severson has not suffered consequences for his actions. Or is that okay, in your opinion?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Joe,

I certainly did dismiss a case without a client's consent and once settled a case w/ absolutely no authority to do so. I lost my license in '85 as a result and was publicly discraced. I have never hidden from my past. I have made big mistakes. Although I make no excuses, I know now what I did not know then - I can't handle the booze. I don't mind the daily reminder. That flak just tells me I'm over the target.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 1:38, My jeep thanks you and loves its new muffler.

Anonymous said...

Retired ASD teacher here.

Listen, this guy (Bernie) only had water at Shula's.
As for me, well . . .

Brilliant piece of writing, Bernie.

Anonymous said...

"Morganelli and Severson are friendly, and John properly feels it would be a conflict to investigate him. But whenever he has referred a question to the state AG, it has always been a half-hearted request at best that frames the facts in a light favorable to Severson."

The headline below the fold.

Compare Morganelli to a class act like Jack Panella and you realize how much better NorCo has to offer the state than its most opportunistic climber.

I asked long ago for the full treatment on this and haven't been disappointed. The personal vitriol of responding posts, absent of any refutation of the facts, confirms to me how important this story is.

More, please.

Not so casual observer said...

Good job Bernie. I have seen the research on this myself and your reporting and figures are spot on
correct. The people involved, the actions and the apparent conclusions are all accurate.

Thank you for helping to expose this blight on our government and political system.

Chris Miller said...

Bernie
Good reporting on your part and obvioulsy by the footnotes a lot of hard work. I know Tom, his wife and daughter. I also know the DA from his days at Liberty High School. Needless to say it is sad to see things like this. If all this is true, and I have no doubt that it is because you do exemplary work, I say let the chips fall where they may and let the guilty be appropriately be punished.

Lady Rep said...

Most Lehigh Valley campaigns are hard-fought and hard-won. All of the nonsense generated by tactics like these take away from the real public debate on issues. A well done campaign piece on an opponent's record is fair game, but smear tactics are merely vitriolic and ill-minded. I really can't think of someone who has done well as a candidate by employing these tactics in recent history. Any candidate who allows it on their behalf and engages in campaigning this way have earned their association with Severson. Those that still use him might want to think twice because you can't play next to the mud pit without getting splashed. I'd rather lose with respect than win with rancor. Tsk, tsk...just unnecessary, immature and a shame for the public.

Anonymous said...

This was a pick and chose hit job. If O 'Hare likes you he plays soft or not at all. There are a lot of conclusions based on incomplete facts.
It's his blog and he can write what he pleases but please don't confuse it with journalism.

Anonymous said...

Looks like you hit a nerve. Thank you for shining a light on this asshole. Nobody else would have the cojones. Now let's expose and work to defeat all candidates (R and D) who use his services.

Anonymous said...

Lies, all Lies. The beautiful thing about this, no matter how politcally motivated the AG is - Severson will never spend a minute in jail. His business won't be adversely affected and Bernie will still be a very bitter man who hates everything because he's made such a mess of his own life.

Anonymous said...

Retired ASD teacher here.

Anon 7:37, not journalism? If only The Morning Call was still capable (and inclined) to report so completely, and to question what's really going on in the Lehigh Valley.

This is EXACTLY the kind of piece that serves to keep everyone on their toes.

I'm glad you (and many others) are able to read this kind of report.

Anonymous said...

If you think THIS is journalism, I am glad you didnot teach my children.

Anonymous said...

"Lies, all Lies. The beautiful thing about this, no matter how politcally motivated the AG is - Severson will never spend a minute in jail."

I keep reading this and similar statements, but the charges seem to be increasing in number and seriousness.

I suggest the Severson-Morganelli crowd get a quick divorce amid a very loud announcement and stop trying to fight a losing political battle together.

Anonymous said...

Bernie: why is the Mcall and press times barely noting this?

Severson has been collecting so much unreported cash from clients like Seyfried, Morganelli etc for years from 3rd parties.

That is indeed the crime.

Bernie O'Hare said...

This is a very involved story. Both papers did report the grand jury investigation. But I agree this is big.