The bottom line of an invitation to a campaign kickoff reads “Paid for by Friends of Sonia Stopperich,” but right above it, for RSVP purposes, is the number of a cellphone paid for by North Strabane Township taxpayers.
The announcement on a campaign Facebook page to which the public has access was posted at 9:12 p.m. Monday. It invited people to attend Stopperich’s 50th birthday party and campaign kick-off event for the 48th Legislative District race Sunday at the Doubletree, Racetrack Road, at a cost of $50 per couple or $25 for individuals.
The post states, “Please RSVP to Greg” and lists the same cellphone number that Greg Sulc uses as director of parks and recreation in North Strabane Township.
Township Manager Frank Siffrinn confirmed late Friday that the phone number is not associated with a privately maintained account.
“It is an unauthorized use of a cellphone,” Siffrinn said. “The phone is a township-owned phone made available to his usage solely as a parks and recreation director.
“It is now a personnel matter, and it will be dealt with appropriately by the board of supervisors.”
North Strabane has a written policy on the use of township cellphones, and Siffrinn called the placing of it on political campaign material “inconsistent with the policy.”
Shown a photocopy of the campaign kickoff invitation and asked about the phone number being identical to that of the parks and recreation cellphone number, Sulc on Friday said, “It’s my everything number.”
Stopperich, who along with Sulc attended the League of Women Voters legislative luncheon at Springhill Suites, Trinity Point, said, “He doesn’t have another phone.” Asked if the township has a written policy on use of municipal cellphones, she said that would be a question for Siffrinn.
Robin Hittie, chief counsel for the state Ethics Commission, was contacted Friday by the Observer-Reporter regarding the phone issue and said, “I will not comment on any specific individual or alleged conduct,” but she said the commission has, in the past, addressed the use of public cellphones for other than government business.
“As to the utilization of government personnel and property for personal purposes, we have long held that a public official/public employee may not use government equipment, facilities or personnel for personal, business, campaign or re-election activities,” the Ethics Commission website says.
In a 2001 case from Tobyhanna Township, Monroe County, a supervisor who later became a roadmaster was called on the carpet for using a township cellphone to make personal calls and communicate with his private business.
But the Ethics Commission also takes into account the economic impact of a questionable act, and uses the term “de minimus,” Latin for “about minimal things.”
“The applicability or inapplicability of the de minimis exclusion is decided on a case-by-case basis,” according to the Ethics Commission website.
Stopperich, a Republican, was elected to North Strabane’s five-member board of supervisors in 2011. She works as a nurse at Canonsburg Hospital. Sulc, who said he and Stopperich are dating, sent an announcement of her entry into the legislative race early Wednesday afternoon from a North Strabane Township email address. Reached later at work, he said he sent it during his lunch break, but used a township email account in error.
Stopperich said that day she was unaware of the manner in which the news was sent to the Observer-Reporter and that she did not authorize Sulc to send out her candidacy announcement in advance of the May 20 GOP primary using his township email.
It was recently revealed the state Ethics Commission is investigating Sulc’s appointment to the parks and recreation post immediately after his resignation as a township supervisor in September 2011.
Also that year, Sulc made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for one of two seats on the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
The incumbent in the 48th Legislative District, which includes both Washington and Canonsburg, is state Rep. Brandon Neuman, who is pursuing a bid for the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination while also seeking a third, two-year term in the General Assembly.