State Sen. Bill DeSteph asks Attorney General to weigh-in on Pro-Light Rail Group

Posted at 7:19 PM, Nov 03, 2016

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - State Sen. Bill DeSteph sent a letter to Virginia's Attorney General Mark Herring, asking him to weigh-in on whether Virginia Beach Connex is following the law.

Virginia Beach Connex is the communications arm of Light Rail Now, a non-profit group in favor of extending light rail to Town Center.

Voters will decide whether or not to support a possible extension on Tuesday. The vote is non-binding, so city council members will still have the final say.

DeSteph is questioning Connex's legal status. Currently, the group is considered a 501 (c)(4) and as a result has not disclosed where its donations are coming from. The distinction is meant for "social welfare" groups. Martha McClees, the executive director, notes that her group isn't only tied to Tuesday's referendum vote, but rather to the issue as a whole. DeSteph believes the group appears to operate as a Political Action Committee. PAC's have to disclose their donors.

McClees showed a reporter the copy of an email she says is from the state board of elections, saying the group didn't have to disclose its donors. "I simply complied with what I was told by the state board of elections," she said.

On the other side, City Treasurer John Atkinson runs the campaign against extending light rail. "The whole purpose of VB Connex is to shield the contributors names from the citizens of Virginia Beach," he said. "I think it is against the public interest." He says his group has disclosed its donors.

McClees said she couldn't say how much money her group has raised. "That's information that's necessary for us to disclose," she said. "I think it's distressing that we spend so much time worrying about the nuances of the campaign and not more time focused on the issues.

Atkinson is aware of DeSteph's letter and says he's not expecting an answer until after Election Day.