NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Opponents of Norfolk’s proposed casino are calling for an investigation to be conducted after flyers with the pro-casino logo were given out with food at several area food pantries.
The flyers were printed up by the “Yes Norfolk Referendum Committee” — the name on file with the department of elections as the group pushing for a “yes vote” on the city’s casino referendum next month.
The flyer reads: “This food is provided by the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. As members of the community, we are proud to be a partner serving others during this difficult time.”
The lower-left corner of the flyer has the committee’s double poker chip logo with the word “YES” in bold blue letters and “Norfolk” in a smaller blue underneath. The right corner had a line reading “Paid for and Authorized by the Yes Norfolk Committee.”
The tribe — which is the sole donor to the committee — announced in August that it has been working with area churches and nonprofit organizations since the summer to provide funding for food pantries and hot meals for those in need. Chief Robert Gray said improving access to food was a cornerstone of the tribe’s community involvement.
Alan Smith — who is part of the group of citizens who oppose the tribe’s plans to build a resort casino next to Harbor Park — said he initially applauded the tribe’s efforts, as he too is a big supporter of the foodbanks.
However, upon seeing the flyer, he became upset. Alan Smith said never before had he seen someone who donated to the food bank, have a flyer advertising their donation to the person who receives it.
“It just seemed wrong, why were they politicizing the distribution of food to some of our most vulnerable and needy people?” Alan Smith said.
The committee’s campaign Facebook page themselves posted a picture of the flyer Wednesday, saying the tribe had partnered with Xodus III Community Development Corp. and Village Family to provide meals. The flyers were also reportedly given out at the Basilica of Saint Mary’s Pantry and the St. Paul’s Community Mobile Pantry.
“To me that was a blatant cororlation between the Pamunkey, the political action committee and their desire to buy votes,” Alan Smith said.
Under Virginia Law, providing money or anything of value to influence a vote is illegal. Furthermore, the Internal Revenue Service holds charities, churches and any 501(c)(3) organization to strict rules when it comes to political activities.
Activity by a 501(c)(3) organization in any campaign for public office is outright banned. The IRS website states that an organization can lobby on issues up for public referendum — but warns that “too much” lobbying activity can risk a group’s tax-exempt status.
“[The food banks are] trying to say thank you for someone helping them,” Alan Smith said. “I don’t want them getting hurt in return for that.”
Alan Smith wrote to the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore with his concerns.
Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols — the president and CEO — responded saying that while the food bank hadn’t accepted any donations from the Pamunkey Indian Tribe or Yes Norfolk Committee and she would take appropriate steps to make sure volunteers don’t hand them out if they have received them.
“It is our firm commitment to remain non-partisan and avoid any participation in political campaign activities,” Nichols said. “I have shared this same commitment with The Basilica of St. Mary’s leadership, and they will take the appropriate steps to ensure alignment with our shared goals for improving the lives of neighbors we serve.”
Rev. Jim Curran, who leads the congregation at The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception said the flyers were given to him by the committee with a request to include them with the bags of food distribution.
“I saw no reason not to do it,” Curran said. “It is unusual, but we drive around with Walmart on our refrigerated truck.”
A spokesperson for the Pamunkey Tribe and the Yes Norfolk Committee attests the flyers don’t qualify as campaign materials.
“It does not mention a referendum, it does not mention a casino, it does mention an election date and it doesn’t ask for a vote,” said Jay Smith — who has no relation to Alan Smith. “The Pamunkey Tribe is committed to helping the Norfolk community, particularly during the coronavirus when so many food pantries have increased needs. Campaigns make charitable donations to organizations all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with making people aware of those donations – that’s transparency, something our opponents lack.”
Jay Smith said the tribe would have no issue if food pantries didn’t want to include the flyers.
Still Alan Smith has requested Norfolk’s commonwealth’s attorney to look into the matter. The office did not immediately return requests for comment.
As for Curran, his church will no longer hand out the flyers.
“We are not going to put them in,” Curran said. “I don’t understand that heightened state of sensitivity but respect it. If not just putting flyers in would appease it. I’ll do it.”