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GOP committee, alleged impostors argue in court

Butler County Courthouse Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

For nearly two hours Tuesday, three Butler PA Patriots members defended themselves in a Common Pleas Court hearing about whether they could use the name “Butler County Republican Committee” as part of a lawsuit brought by the established county committee.

The three members — Bill Halle, Zach Scherer and Erik Edwards — appeared without a lawyer and asked county President Judge S. Michael Yeager to dissolve a preliminary injunction against them, which prevents them from using the committee’s name, arguing the Butler County Republican Committee does not have a monopoly on the name — or even any right to use it.

The established committee filed suit May 4, alleging Halle, Scherer and Edwards registered a nonprofit corporation and fictitious name with the Pennsylvania Department of State under the name “Butler County Republican Committee.” They alleged the trio did so with the intent to “deceive or commit a fraud” on the public, fundraise and endorse candidates for public office, which Halle explicitly denied Tuesday.

“We, of course, don’t know what the court’s going to do with this, but we’re disappointed we even have to do this,” committee chairman Al Lindsay said following the hearing. “Our concern was they would use our name to endorse candidates and, perhaps, fundraise. I just don’t know what their end is other than that.”

Halle, Scherer and Edwards declined to comment after the hearing.

Who owns a name?

Butler attorney Tom King testified Wednesday the county committee has the right to use the name based on the state’s Election Code, which formally established state political parties and county political committees. King, who serves as the Pennsylvania Republican Committee’s general counsel, said he has known the county committee has existed since at least 1958.

Halle, however, had a different perspective. He argued while the election law permits the establishment of county political committees, it — and the state Republican committee’s bylaws — also lays out various processes for those committees to comply with the law. The county committee, Halle claimed, did not follow those processes, and therefore has no right to the name.

First, Halle argued, the committee has not registered itself as a Pennsylvania corporation. Neither the Election Code nor the state committee’s bylaws require county committees to register as a corporation, King testified, noting while some have done so the “vast majority” of county committees are not registered.

Next, Halle argued, the county committee is out of compliance with the state committee’s bylaws because it does not have a certified copy of its bylaws filed with the county Bureau of Elections.

Yeager didn’t accept that argument.

“You’re not a member of the Butler County Republican Committee,” Yeager told Halle. “You don’t have standing to challenge their actions.”

Using the name

Halle testified he and the other two members planned to use the name not for fundraising and endorsing candidates, as the established committee alleges in its complaint, but to be “an education and development training organization.”

He alleged the trio worked with a number of members of the established committee “because of the actions of the chair (Lindsay), because of the actions of the (executive) committee, acting outside their own bylaws.”

“We have not broken any laws, we have not done anything even close to what is being accused by” the committee, Halle said.

In the complaint, the committee stated it “believed” the trio, using the committee’s name, “have publicly endorsed candidates for political office” and “are advertising (the faux committee) to the general public with the intent to seek contributions for candidates for office that they endorse.”

Lindsay testified he could not see any other purpose for appropriating the committee’s name. The established committee, Lindsay said, mainly fundraises and endorses candidates.

“Our concern was that this organization, which uses the same name, would use the name for the same purpose,” Lindsay said.

He said he has no evidence of the nonprofit fundraising or endorsing candidates, but said he “can’t think of any” other purpose for using the name.

Next steps

Yeager did not rule on the petition for an injunction Tuesday, taking the arguments back to his chamber.

Should the case proceed, the established committee also is asking the court for an accounting of any funds received by the nonprofit and any advertisements in which the trio used the name “Butler County Republican Committee” or “Butler County Republican Party.”

That would be decided at trial, according to Leo Stepanian, solicitor for the established committee.