The Carolina Sunrock mine sparked a zoning referendum in Caswell County. Now conservative groups are accused of illegal electioneering to defeat it.

The Carolina Sunrock mine sparked a zoning referendum in Caswell County. Now conservative groups are accused of illegal electioneering to defeat it.

- in Environment, News, Top Story
This graphic shows the connections between Conservative Voters PAC and a mysterious group Citizens Against Zoning, the target of an elections complaint. Among the notable PAC contributors are three people who had a stake in a zoning referendum last fall. Keith Tatum, a minor contributor, is a Yanceyville Town Councilman. He’s relevant because his other group, Citizens for a Better Senate, has been accused in a separate elections complaint over airing misleading and false election ads. Friends of Rural Caswell supported the referendum and filed the proper campaign paperwork.

 

Note: This story was updated on Feb. 16, after Policy Watch obtained a letter reportedly written by Caswell Connection publisher and editor Patti O’Keefe. In that letter, she said the Facebook ad for Citizens Against Zoning had not been removed from the publication’s website; the sentence has been struck from this story.

The controversy over a proposed mine and an asphalt plant has escalated to allegations of illegal electioneering and subterfuge — tactics that might have changed the outcome of a contentious zoning referendum in Caswell County.

Two formal complaints have been filed in connection with the referendum:

  • Bob Hall, the former executive director of Democracy NC, submitted paperwork last week to the State Board of Elections alleging Citizens Against Zoning was merely a front for a “straw donor” — a different political action committee, Conservative Voters PAC.
  • Susan Faison, a resident of Prospect Hill in Caswell County, filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office over mysterious and incendiary robocalls that she received about the referendum.

State law requires the Board of Elections to keep its investigations confidential, so it’s not yet publicly known what it has found.

The referendum was on the county ballot last November. It would have allowed commissioners to establish county-wide zoning that could have been used to prevent industries like mining and asphalt plants from locating in or near residential areas. Only a few places in Caswell have zoning. Prospect Hill, where Carolina Sunrock plans to build a 425-acre mine, has none.

The referendum failed by a slim margin, just 512 votes out of 11,000 cast.

Zoning opponents had plastered the county with signs warning of dire — and false — consequences if the referendum passed. Those signs, as well as newspaper and online advertisements, included a disclosure: “Paid for by Citizens Against Zoning.”

But Citizens Against Zoning doesn’t exist, at least on paper.

State election law requires referendum committees to have a treasurer and file required reports on time.

Robert Webb, director of the Caswell County Board of Elections, told Policy Watch that no group by that name filed any legally required paperwork with his office, such as a statement of organization and expenditure and contribution reports.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this name,” Webb said.

The State Board of Elections website has no record of Citizens Against Zoning, either.

However, a Caswell County political action committee called “Conservative Voters PAC,” did submit required paperwork. And its expenditure reports for the last half of 2020 show that on Sept. 25, 2020, the PAC spent $1,600 on ads that appeared in the Caswell Connection, a free monthly newspaper. 

On Sept. 28, the Caswell Connection’s Facebook page featured three ads. One was allegedly paid for by Citizens Against Zoning and opposed the referendum. A second placed by Conservative Voters PAC supported two county commission candidates, including John Dickerson, who ran in part, on an anti-zoning platform. A third ad that ran Sept. 28 supported the re-election of County Commissioner Rick McVey and was paid for by his committee, according to the disclosure on the ad. The PAC also independently supported McVey’s candidacy.

Hall told Policy Watch that he “was told by people with direct knowledge that the [Citizens Against Zoning] ads were paid by the Conservative Voters PAC. I’m asking the State Board of Elections to document what happened and take action to enforce the law.”

The person who would have direct knowledge of who was behind the ads is Patti O’Keefe, the paper’s editor and publisher.

O’Keefe did not return an email and a phone call from Policy Watch asking about the ads. However, the ad for Citizens Against Zoning was removed from the paper’s website after Policy Watch called her.

All three ads use the same font and color scheme, and contain mostly capital letters. The tone and appearance of the ads are also similar to postings on the Conservative Voters Facebook page.

Conservative Voters PAC paid Dialing Services, based in New Mexico, a total of $500 for automated calls, according to expenditure reports. One of those payments occurred on Oct. 8. Ten days later, Susan Faison’s phone rang.

Faison and her husband were spending the evening with their grandchildren, when at around 8 p.m., the first call came in. She answered the phone, but then hung up.

Over the next half hour, Faison received two more robocalls from a blocked number, she said. The third time, Faison listened carefully. “It was a woman’s voice,” Faison told Policy Watch. “It said to vote against the zoning referendum. Otherwise the government can tell you who you can sell your property to.”

According to Faison’s complaint to the Attorney General’s office, there was no disclosure of who paid for or sponsored the call; nor did the caller provide a phone number. Both are required under election law.

Faison, though, is a retired realtor. She knew the robocall’s allegations were false.

“I wanted to call back,” Faison said.

Conservative Voters PAC organized in 2019, according to state filings. 

According to its website, the PAC’s mission “is to recruit, support and elect true conservative candidates to local offices in Caswell County.” The website features photos of far-right candidates, including former President Donald Trump, former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who unsuccessfully ran for governor, and current Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

In the 2020 General Election, the PAC’s related Facebook page, Conservative Voices, took a stand on two major issues: It opposed zoning, and it advocated for allowing a Confederate statue to remain on county property.

It’s unclear if the many contributors to the PAC knew about its potential connection to Citizens Against Zoning. However, several contributors did have a stake in the success or failure of the zoning referendum.

Ernest Koury, Jr., son of the founder of Burlington-based Carolina Hosiery and an executive in the company, has optioned the land in Prospect Hill to Carolina Sunrock for the proposed mine. (The mine has been on hold since state regulators denied its air quality permit and county commissioners enacted a temporary  moratorium on polluting industries.)

Koury contributed $500 to the PAC last July. 

William Russell Johnston, an attorney, is the chairman of the Caswell County Planning Board. He made three contributions to the PAC totaling $1,150, while serving as board chairman — a time in which he was overseeing zoning questions about Prospect Hill, according to campaign finance reports and meeting minutes. 

Johnston did not return an email from Policy Watch asking whether this could rightfully be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Ron Richmond, a minor contributor, also serves on the county planning board.

Ed “Fast Eddie” Heintz, founder of Conservative Voters PAC, and a frequent contributor to Caswell Political Forum, which posts racist and sexist memes and conspiracy theories on Facebook. (Photo: Heintz’s Facebook page)

The PAC’s founder is Eddie “Fast Eddie” Heintz. The PAC is listed under his street address, according to campaign filings.

Policy Watch informed Heintz via phone and email of the election complaint against the PAC and requested more information. He wrote back, saying that he would check into who paid for the anti-zoning ads, but has yet to respond. 

In addition to his role as the PAC founder, Heintz appears to be a common thread among interwoven conservative Caswell County Facebook accounts: the PAC, Caswell County Political Forum, and Heintz’s own page.

Heintz frequently posts to Caswell Political Forum. Last May, the Forum invited its Facebook followers to like the new Conservative Voters PAC page.

Similar to the PAC, the Forum advocated for keeping the Confederate statute and opposed zoning. The Forum’s incendiary language and appearance in its posts resemble the PAC and Citizens Against Zoning ads. 

The Forum page does not disclose the name of its administrator; nor does the PAC.

Both the PAC’s and the Forum’s pages contain many sexist and racist posts and images. It perpetuates offensive and racist tropes, such as that Michelle Obama is actually a man. The page also features a photo of President Obama with a rope around his neck and the line “Pay Per View.” 

In a post to the Forum page, Heintz called for “all militia and constitutionalists” to converge on Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. His personal account also spreads lies discrediting Joe Biden’s presidency.

The PAC and Forum spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19, as does Heintz’s personal page. 

The Forum page is also rife with misinformation and lies about zoning. A post claimed that the Caswell County Commissioners hired a Carolina Sunrock lawyer to advise them about zoning. However, as Policy Watch reported at the time, Tom Terrell, while he often represents mining companies, does not work for Carolina Sunrock. 

Heintz is no longer treasurer of Conservative Voters PAC. A new treasurer, Rebecca Gammon, lists the same street address as that for the Committee to Elect John Dickerson.

Dickerson’s election platform included  opposition to zoning.

The phone number for Gammon went to voicemail; the mailbox was full and could not accept messages.

After receiving the robocall, Susan Faison volunteered at the polls to distribute literature in support of zoning. “Sunrock’s own attorney said in public if Caswell County had zoning we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Faison said. “Zoning protects your backyard and my backyard.”