Rep. Kerry Benninghoff is among a handful of state legislators whose faces have appeared on “Wanted” posters and who say they have received threats over their opposition to a property tax bill.
Benninghoff said he received a letter implying he would be shot at a public meeting if he didn’t support the plan. Later, a postcard addressed to his daughters arrived at his office with the return address of his rented Harrisburg apartment.
“The second one was a little alarming,” Benninghoff told the Centre Daily Times on Thursday. “Probably I was the only one to take note (of the return address). That’s the way you sent a message (of) ‘I know where you live and I know you have children.’
“In this day and age, sadly, you have to take this a little more serious,” he said.
The Photoshopped Wild West-style wanted poster featured photos of Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte; Rep Seth Grove R-York, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland; and Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne.
A member of the Berks County-based Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition said he first posted the illustration on the group’s Facebook page a few months ago as a statement about those opposed to House Bill 76.
The coalition supports House Bill 76, a proposed property tax legislation bill that would eliminate property taxes, Benninghoff said.
Benninghoff is chairman of the House Finance Committee, and Mundy is Democratic chairwoman. Grove and Evankovich are members of the committee, and all five voted to advance Grove’s bill but didn’t bring House Bill 76 up for a vote.
House Bill 76, introduced by Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, failed to pass from the committee, and it also failed as an amendment to Grove’s bill, which did pass the House 149-46 on Oct. 2.
Benninghoff said Thursday that House Bill 76, as is, would create a significant shortfall in the state budget.
Supporters of the bill had been pressuring Benninghoff for months before the wanted posters appeared.
“They were trying to use it as intimidation, basically,” he said. “It just continued to the point they were getting really aggressive. They would call my Bellefonte office and scream at my staff.
“The whole group isn’t like this,” Benninghoff said. “There are a handful of zealots.”
The first threat came in the mail after an August shooting in which a man who was angry with his local officials opened fire at a Monroe County township board meeting, killing three people.
A letter sent to one of Benninghoff’s district offices shortly after the shooting warned the representative to pass the bill “or else,” and led the reader to a clipping of a Pocono Record news story from the shooting, which the sender had circled in red, Benninghoff said.
“You kind of have to take that seriously,” he said. “We’d like to think this is isolated, but I have to be cognizant. It’s not only about me at this point.”
He forwarded the threat to House security, and the ordeal alarmed his staff members, some of whom have been “leery to go out in public with me,” Benninghoff said.
His staff thought him “crazy” last month when he decided to attend a meeting in Berks County to address House Bill 76 supporters and explain his position, he said.
“I thought it would be helpful,” he said. “They wanted me to wear a bulletproof vest.”
He went, and there were no security incidents, he said.
But four days later, at another district office, a postcard arrived. The front showed a photo of an Islamic mosque, and it was addressed to the chairman’s four daughters and carried the address of his city apartment as the return address, he said.
“In 17 years, I never heard of anyone being threatened like that over legislation,” he said.
Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition administrator David Baldinger said the group — which has a statewide email list of about 5,000 people — doesn’t condone threats or harassment. He wasn’t aware legislators had been threatened, he said.
The 2,240-member Facebook group is open to the public. Posts can be made by and seen by anyone, and those who request to be members are typically granted access, he said.
“There’s no accounting for the outliers and I can’t keep an eye on everyone,” he said. “There’s going to be some nut-bags out there.”
The group strives to “cast off some people who get pretty radical,” he said, but added there was no threat implied in the “Wanted” poster.
Lebanon resident and coalition member Jim Rodkey said he crafted the “Wanted” poster, but it was not intended to be a threat. It was political satire, he said, noting it didn’t include the phrase “dead or alive.”
Baldinger said Grove has been strongly opposed by members of the taxpayer group because he has been vocally and vehemently opposed to House Bill 76 as he instead pursued his own legislation.
He said Grove couldn’t have taken it too seriously, as Grove recently posted it on his own Facebook page accompanied by a video of Bon Jovi’s song “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Baldinger said.
Grove said he posted it to demonstrate he wasn’t intimidated and that “those tactics never work, ever.”
He said the “Wanted” poster, when added to the threats received by legislators and the overall tenor of House Bill 76 supporters, raises concerns.
A commenter on one website in support of the bill said of legislators: “Kill ’em all, sort ’em out later.”
“Mean things are part of the territory (as a representative),” Grove said. “But when you get into things like, ‘Kill ’em all and sort ’em out later,’ that’s where it draws a line. I can take name-calling all day long, but when you add that poster to some of the other things that were said ... it’s not right.”