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Morrissey Vows To Appeal $600 Facebook Ad Fine In Court

Joe Morrissey interrupts Arielle Schneider, a policy analyst for the Department of Elections, at a Board of Elections meeting on Monday.
Joe Morrissey interrupts Arielle Schneider, a policy analyst for the Department of Elections, at a Board of Elections meeting on Monday. Ben Paviour/WCVE News

Virginia’s Board of Elections fined Democratic Senate candidate Joe Morrissey $600 on Monday for failing to properly disclose two campaign videos he advertised on Facebook.

The controversial former lawmaker called the board’s unanimous decision “specious” and vowed to appeal it in court.

The hearing on Monday centered on three videos Morrissey featured on his Facebook page in the run-up to his June 11 primary against Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg). The former Democratic delegate easily won that race in spite of his past brushes with the law, including a 2014 plea deal in which Morrissey admitted to having sex with his then 17-year old receptionist.

Virginia’s Stand By Your Ad law requires candidates to explicitly state “Paid for…” or “Authorized by…” in the ad. If the ad mentions another candidate -- in this case, Dance -- the ad must also state whether it is authorized by that candidate.

Morrissey conceded that he had not included the second element in his ads but argued that he had complied with what he said were more stringent requirements from Facebook, which listed all of his ads with the text “Paid for by Joe Morrissey.”

“To assess a fine because somebody says ‘Paid for by Joe Morrissey’ instead of ‘Paid for and Authorized by Joe Morrissey’ is specious, and we’ll appeal that to the courts,” Morrissey said after the hearing.

The fate of a separate complaint related to Morrissey's campaign finances remains even more uncertain. That complaint, filed by a staffer for Sen. Jennifer McCelllan's political action committee, questioned why Morrissey's political action committee reported no expenditures in the first quarter of 2019 in spite of a slickly-produced video that appeared on his Facebook page.

In a written response to the Board of Elections, Morrissey said the video, “Do You Want to See Me in the State Senate?”, was produced by a “Mr. X.” He told WCVE that Mr. X was entirely responsible for making and distributing what he called a “video documentary.” The video showed Morrissey handing out campaign flyers and was released the same day as the Department of Elections received Morrissey's paperwork to run for office.

WCVE  reported last month that several Facebook ads featuring the video were also not disclosed on Morrissey’s first quarter campaign finance forms. 

On Monday, Morrissey identified all three video’s producers as Alec Price, who is listed under state business records as the agent of a Midlothian-based marketing agency called Automating Your Biz. When asked if he paid someone to produce the videos, Morrissey initially said yes. Under questioning, he said that Price made the videos as a kind of proof-in-concept that Morrissey then paid him to distribute via Facebook.

“There was no payment for it and there was not an in-kind service,” Morrissey said of the video production.

But Morrissey went on to say that he had paid for the video's distribution. He likened the videos on his Facebook page to a hypothetical one recorded by an audience member who went on to upload it to social media. 

“If I take that video and I purposely disseminate it to a larger audience, which I did with these videos, then you’ve obviously got to pay for it, and disclose it,” he said. “I did both.”

Morrisey's political action committee reported a $6,999 payment for “advertising videos” on April 15 to Price’s Automating Your Biz firm. It’s not clear whether that payment covered Morrissey’s first video and the associated Facebook ads. It was released on Morrissey’s Facebook page on March 8, during an earlier campaign filing period during which Morrissey’s political action committee reported no spending.

Monitering possible campaign finance violations falls under the purview of commonwealth's attorneys, who rarely take up such cases. 

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Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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