Frankly speaking: complaint alleges Edwards abused free postage rules

A complaint filed by the chair of the Henderson County Democratic Party alleges Western North Carolina Congressman Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) violated United States Code and U.S. House of Representatives rules by mailing “hyper-partisan” fliers, thus abusing his congressional franking privilege.

“It is my opinion that Congressman Edwards knew or should have known that a partisan attack on Asheville Democratic city officials, under the guise of a ‘crime mailer,’ was a misuse of his franking privilege,” writes Hendersonville attorney Bruce Macdonald, in a Feb. 9 letter to HCDP Chair Leslie Carey.

Franking is a longstanding privilege afforded to certain federal public officials whereby their signature serves as a substitute for an acceptable “stamp” on materials delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, thereby eliminating the need to purchase postage stamps.

Franked mail, however, is far from free, as Congress eventually reimburses the Postal Service with taxpayer funds for the cost of the postage.

A self-made millionaire who owns a property rental business and several McDonald’s franchises across the region, Edwards has assets of between $7 million and $35 million and unearned income of more than $1 million a year, according to his 2022 personal finance disclosure. Edwards has yet to file his 2023 disclosure, despite being given an extension to Aug. 13, 2023.

Through Feb. 14, Edwards’ 2024 campaign had raised just under $1 million, per his most recent campaign finance report.

“Edwards often labels his constituents who receive much needed government assistance as socialists, but he was quick to accept more than $1 million in COVID relief money to fund his restaurants in 2020. Now he thinks he has found a way to saddle the taxpayer with the cost of his attack mailers,” said Carey in Feb. 26 a press release. “He needs to be held accountable.”

Macdonald says he first suspected Edwards was abusing the franking system upon receiving a large glossy piece of franked mail from Edwards’ office the week before Christmas 2023.

The mailer, which features clippings of headlines from various news outlets, concludes with one from Fox News that reads, “Democrat-run tourist town sees 200% surge in break-ins amid violent crime spike: ‘Wildly frustrating.’”

It’s not the first time Edwards has made disparaging statements about Asheville or Buncombe County — a liberal enclave surrounded by a sea of deep-red rural Western North Carolina counties — and it’s not the first time his adversaries have fired back at him for doing so.

A Jan. 21 post from Edwards’ congressional Twitter/X account accuses Asheville’s leaders of not having the political will to fight crime. He’s also accused them of twisting and manipulating crime statistics, while being blamed for the same thing by the county’s top law enforcement officer.

“Congressman Edwards says Buncombe County is in danger of turning into Chicago. I expect that type of commentary from Fox News, however, his statement is not supported by the crime statistics from the NC SBI and it’s irresponsible to have a conversation about public safety that is not rooted in data,” said Buncombe Sheriff Quentin Miller in a press release from June 2023.

The complaint proposes four violations, all essentially alleging Edwards’ use of the word “Democrat” and his history of disparagement broke prohibitions against politicizing franked materials. The first alleged violation pertains to a stipulation in 39 USC § 3210(a) that franked mail be used to “assist and expedite the conduct of the official business, activities and duties” of Congress.

According to the complaint, the Asheville crime mailer did not constitute “official business, activities and duties” but was instead “a naked, misleading, hyper partisan campaign mailer” attacking Asheville, Buncombe County and its elected leaders at taxpayer expense.

The other three claims in the complaint allege violations of the House Communications Standards Manual, including prohibitions on using official communications and franked materials for political business or for disparaging political parties.

The complaint asks that Edwards reimburse the government for the cost of the mail and that he receive additional appropriate sanctions if deemed necessary by the court.

Edwards didn’t immediately respond to a request for an interview about the complaint, and has not responded to interview requests from The Smoky Mountain News for nearly a year.

 

Carey filed the complaint on Feb. 26 with the House Communications Standards Commission, a six-member bipartisan committee charged with creating regulations pertaining to the use of the franking privilege, as well as issuing formal and informal advisory opinions on official mass communications by members and reviewing formal complaints about franking abuse.

A 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service says the Commission at that time would typically receive between 6,000 and 8,000 advisory opinion requests each year, along with four or five complaints alleging franking abuse.

Per the House Communications Standards Manual, the Commission will review the complaint and apply penalties if necessary, including but not limited to a written warning, suspension of official mass communication privileges or mandatory educational briefings by the Commission.

Edwards, however, did avail himself of an advisory opinion on the Asheville crime mailer from the HCSC, which on Dec. 19, 2023 deemed the mailer “frankable.” 

Macdonald said that although some believe the issuance of a favorable advisory opinion insulates members from complaints or disciplinary actions as a result of their official mass communications, that simply isn’t so — a position he argues in the complaint.

“That Advisory Opinion was just that — a nonbinding advisory opinion,” it reads.

Macdonald supports his position by noting that U.S. Code has many examples where Congress specifically states that any person who relies on an advisory opinion in good faith shall be held harmless, but there is no such “hold harmless” provision in the franking statutes.

“Where Congress has used language in statutes to achieve a particular result, the absence of such language in a statute justifies the inference that the language was intentionally omitted,” the complaint reads.

If the complaint is dismissed by the Commission, it could reemerge as a federal lawsuit.

Per the House mass communications disclosure website, Edwards received advisory opinions 250 times in 2023, almost more than every other member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation combined.

His predecessor, Hendersonville Republican Madison Cawthorn, only received nine advisory opinions during his lone term. Cawthorn’s predecessor, Macon County Republican Mark Meadows, didn’t receive a single one, dating back to 2018.

Edwards’ total is good for the third-most out of all current House members. Only congressmen Bob Good (R-VA) and Zachary Nunn (R-IA) utilized the advisory opinion service more in 2023, with 297 and 265 opinions, respectively.

Caleb Rudow, a Democrat state legislator who represents Asheville in the North Carolina General Assembly, will face Edwards on the ballot in November if Edwards makes it through his Primary Election contest with Hayesville businessman Christian Reagan as expected.

Rudow agrees with the nature of the complaint.

“If multimillionaire politicians like Chuck Edwards want to send out campaign mailers, they shouldn’t be asking for handouts from taxpayers to pay for them,” Rudow said.

Franking regulations have been significantly altered several times since 1789, with Congress even outlawing the privilege for a brief time in the late 1800s, so the question of franking reform isn’t new.

Recent technological developments — namely cellular phone communication, email and text messaging — raise renewed questions over the continued existence of franking, but the CRS report also says that contemporary criticisms include its cost to taxpayers, its potential for abuse and the advantage it gives incumbents like Edwards.

Although the CRS report is somewhat dated, it does indicate that franking costs in election years tend to be about double those in non-election years, despite prohibitions on politicizing the content of franked mail; in 2014, an election year, the report estimates $17 million in franked material, but in 2015, that number was closer to $8 million.

“Constituent outreach is an important function of holding office, but it’s plain as day that insider politicians are abusing this power. The mailers Chuck Edwards sends out are more about electioneering and boosting his profile than serving his constituents in WNC,” Rudow said. “We need a regulatory overhaul to rein in these kinds of abuses of power so that franking is only used for genuine constituent outreach and is not simply a campaign tool for incumbents that taxpayers are footing the bill for.”

 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates, or find the next issue of The Smoky Mountain News online and on newsstands on Wednesday, Feb. 28.

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