Some members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have increased security after a "Wanted" poster featured the names and faces of five state lawmakers, and representatives say they've been threatened about a property tax bill.
Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, was among those targeted because of his opposition to a bill favored by some taxpayer groups. The chairman of the committee in which the bill was housed said he has received cryptic threats in the mail.
House Finance Committee Chairman Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, said he received a letter last month in which the writer implied Benninghoff would be shot at in a public meeting. That was followed by a postcard addressed to his daughters and carrying the return address of his rented Harrisburg apartment, which few people know he keeps, he said.
"The fact they used my own Harrisburg apartment as the return address. ... If you want to intimidate someone, you let them know you know where they live and that they have four daughters," Benninghoff said Wednesday night. "All of this, over a property tax bill."
The Photoshopped Wild West-style wanted poster featured photos of Benninghoff, Grove, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County; Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland/Armstrong counties; and Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne County.
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, but has taken a position against Grove's property tax bill, House Bill 1189.
Benninghoff is chairman of the House Finance Committee, and Mundy is Democratic chair. 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 County, 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.
Move the bill, 'or else': Benninghoff has been getting pressure from supporters of HB 76 for months, he said, but the tactics at first had been provocative but non-threatening.
People have posted signs in front of numerous vacant dilapidated buildings, saying the property was vacant because "Chairman Benninghoff had an old woman thrown out of this house" or "Chairman Benninghoff thew a veteran out of this house," insinuating the property was vacant because the owner couldn't afford the property taxes, he said.
Benninghoff said 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 like to think the Gabby Giffords thing isn't going to happen, but look how random that was," he said. "These people actually have vindictive emotions directed toward Seth (Grove) and me, and Turzai, and now they've got the minority chair involved."
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.
'Nut-bags out there': 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 Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber 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."
'Tactics never work': 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."
Grove said he has not been personally threatened and he has never felt unsafe around his constituents, but the House's security detail sent two officers to cover his Oct. 10 town hall meeting in Dover. An undercover officer from Northern Regional Police Department was also in the crowd, Grove said.
Hal Roach, sergeant at arms for the House of Representatives, said people are entitled to take their concerns to their representatives, and his department steps in "only when things get a little out of control."
He said he could not provide details about an investigation that's under way, and he declined to say whether security would be present at Grove's Thursday town hall meeting in New Salem.
- Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.