Two weeks after an incident near the Wetlands in Bethel Township, Lebanon County Republican Committee chairman Bill Bova says public attention should be on the actual removal of signs by Alex Kuhn, son of sitting commissioner Mike Kuhn, who is currently running for his first full term in office, and not the circumstances surrounding the incident.
“My focus is on candidates stealing signs,” Bova said in an interview with LebTown on Wednesday.
Bova was commenting on an April 17 incident in which Alex Kuhn was allegedly caught on video removing campaign signs from a property adjacent to the Wetlands in Bethel Township following a Kuhn campaign event there.
In addition to removing Kuhn campaign signs, Alex Kuhn also removed a sign promoting the joint campaign of sitting commissioner Bob Phillips and Swatara Township supervisor Bill Bering Jr.
Bering and Phillips received the endorsement of the Lebanon County Republican Committee at a meeting in March. Kuhn, Phillips, and Bering, along with Sharon Zook, are running to be the Republican candidates for Lebanon County Commissioner in this fall’s general election. The primary election will be held on May 16.
The video has not been released publicly and LebTown has not seen the footage.
Bova said that the Lebanon County Republican Committee was not involved in the monitoring of the Phillips-Bering sign near the Wetlands on the evening of April 17, and that he was not aware of any ongoing surveillance efforts.
Bova noted that with the ubiquity of cellphones today, surveillance efforts might not even be necessary, and encouraged any member of the public who sees someone taking a sign to snap a picture and hold them accountable. “People should be accountable,” said Bova, adding that the signs cost a lot of money.
“Campaigns are heated at times – you have to both respect and follow the law.”
In a previous interview with LebTown, Kuhn said there was an obligation for the video footage of the April 17 incident to be handed over to law enforcement.
LebTown has been unable to confirm any formal requests for investigation of the incident by Pennsylvania State Police or the Lebanon County District Attorney’s office. Bethel Township does not have its own police force.
Bova said he has seen the video, or at least portions of it, but that the Lebanon County Republican Committee doesn’t have a copy of it.
“I literally don’t have it,” said Bova.
Bova said that the video shows Alex Kuhn taking signs belonging to both the Kuhn and Phillips-Bering campaigns and that the video’s release is up to the Phillips-Bering campaign.
Bova said that he had no knowledge of the previously reported meeting at the Steitz Club where Phillips informed Kuhn of the video’s existence and relayed a message from the Bering family that Kuhn should drop out of the race.
Phillips previously told LebTown that the suggestion for Kuhn to drop out of the race was first mentioned by Bill Bering Sr. and relayed by Phillips to Kuhn at the Steitz Club meeting.
Phillips also said that Bill Bering Jr. was the first to show him the video the day after it was filmed.
Bova said he does not know who was doing the filming. Bova also said that he does not know what Bering Sr.’s involvement in the incident may have been.
Bering Jr. previously declined LebTown’s request for comment on the incident.
Contacted Thursday, Bering Jr. thanked LebTown for an opportunity to speak about the incident, but again declined the interview request.
“This issue of our signs being stolen and vandalized is unfortunate, but I am committed to running a positive campaign focused on improving Lebanon County,” he said.
Bova – who said he doesn’t have any first-hand knowledge of the Steitz Club exchange – said that he did not have an opinion on whether Kuhn should drop out, and that everybody has a right to run, with or without the party’s endorsement.
Bova said that if the meeting occurred, in his opinion it was an act of goodwill and an opportunity to not drag the candidate’s son into the situation. Bova remarked on how his son is a U.S. Marine and would face repercussions if Bova, in a similar situation to Kuhn, had gone on the radio and said something about his son like Kuhn did, alluding to comments on WLBR made by Kuhn earlier that day.
Bova said that his son would come before him, and any political ambition or anything else he had.
Bova said that if he was in Kuhn’s position, he would have taken responsibility. “The buck stops at the top,” said Bova.
“I would have taken responsibility,” he added. “I would have said, ‘I didn’t tell them not to touch the signs, it’s my fault.’ That’s what I would have done.”
Bova said that he thought Mike Kuhn threw Alex Kuhn “under the bus” with remarks following the incident in which he admitted his son’s involvement.
“He acknowledged that signs were taken,” said Bova. “He acknowledged that his son took the signs, which I was shocked at.”
“Frankly you had a candidate who – in my opinion – threw his son under the bus.”
Bova said that the Kuhn campaign was warned about signs disappearing and that the Phillips-Bering campaign had a right to monitor the signs, which have a direct cost associated to them.
“The Kuhn campaign was told to not touch Phillips-Bering signs,” said Bova. “The only person who can touch those signs is the candidates himself.”
Mike Kuhn previously told LebTown that Alex Kuhn was acting to honor what he thought were the wishes of the property owner. LebTown was able to confirm the Kuhn campaign’s story with the property owner, who said that permission was given only to a Kuhn campaign volunteer to place signs during the campaign event, with the additional request that the signs be taken down after the event.
The property owner said they observed the day after the event that the signs were taken down and was happy with the outcome – and was not aware of any potential surveillance operation from the bushes until contacted by LebTown. LebTown is protecting the identity of the property owner out of respect for their privacy.
Bova said that the property owner’s wishes were not relevant. “(The sign) was on the other side of the guardrail,” said Bova. “It’s in the right of way. It’s on the other side of the guardrail. Alex Kuhn knows that. He worked for Long-Nyquist on campaigns.”
Bova was alluding to Alex Kuhn’s previous employment by Long Nyquist + Associates on a campaign for Mike Turzai.
“You’re allowed to put signs along right-of-ways,” said Bova.
Bova said the signs were directly roadside where any other campaign sign would be.
In an interview Friday, Bethel Township zoning officer Jeremy Bentz said the township does not require permits for political signs, but that if a political sign is placed in front of someone’s home who does not want them, then the political sign would not be allowed.
Bentz said that the right-of-way is an area where the government or related utilities have permission to do work. “That can happen with that right of way,” he said. “It’s not a public right-of-way for anyone to do anything they want.”
“If the township or PennDOT wants to do something there, they have the ability to do that.”
Bentz said this was true even if a road has a guardrail.
“A person’s property goes – it’s all of that property – to the road where people are driving.”
Bethel Township manager Melissa Johnson said that the township hasn’t received any complaints about political signs.
Lebanon County transportation planner Jon Fitzkee said he was not aware of any right to place signs in a right-of-way without permission. “You can’t put anything in there that someone didn’t say was okay,” he said.
Fitzkee explained that right-of-ways are regulated due to safety concerns, noting that street signs, for example, require special breakaway bolts so that they smack down to the ground if hit, instead of impaling a vehicle.
Fitzkee also shared an example of how liability can exist for property owners depending on what they place in the right-of-way. For example, if a sign placed on the roadside causes traffic to slow down to read it, leading to a vehicle being rear-ended, there could be a question of who’s at fault.
“Strict interpretation, can you put anything in a right of way, absolutely not,” said Fitzkee.
According to PennDOT’s official guidance for political signs (PDF), the transportation authority considers unauthorized political signs along its right-of-ways along state roads, interstates, expressways, and other limited access highways to be illegal encroachments.
LebTown texted Bova on Friday saying that further reporting had so far not been able to corroborate his statements regarding right-of-ways.
“You’re still focused on the wrong thing as admitted by Mike Kuhn they have no authority to steal a sign,” said Bova in a text response to LebTown. “Also I have no idea who you talked to so no comment yet.” Later, Bova said that he believed LebTown’s source was inaccurate regarding right-of-ways but did not provide substantiation for his statements.
In a text Saturday, Bova shared a graphic showing the right-of-way for Pine Meadow Road. “The narrative that it was on private property is simply not true,” said Bova. “The picture attached shows the location of the yard sign and as per Bethel Township’s mapping system the right of way extends 16 1/2 feet from the center of the road.”
“Once again the sign was located in a public right of way.”
Bova did not provide LebTown with any regulations or officials that could attest to his statement that campaigns are allowed to place signs along right-of-ways without the property owner’s approval or other official permission.
In an interview with LebTown on Friday, Kuhn said that he accepted responsibility that Alex was acting on behalf of his campaign and he did something inappropriate.
“They started making an argument about whether the signs were placed in a right-of-way or on private property, and that’s not the point,” said Kuhn. “To me, the point was, he touched someone else’s sign, and that’s wrong.” (LebTown had not brought up the right-of-way question at this point in the interview, and Kuhn was apparently referring to Bova’s comments during an interview with Laura LeBeau last week.)
Kuhn said he tried to own up to it immediately, and that he would never encourage anyone to remove an opponent’s signs, or permit anyone to do anything like that.
Regarding Bova’s characterization of Kuhn as throwing Alex under the bus, Kuhn said that Bova was entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts. “Yvonne and I love our son, Alex, as well as our other two children,” said Kuhn. “Alex is a tremendous young man and very successful in his career.”
“He’s a good friend and a good young man, and I’m very proud of him,” said Kuhn.
Kuhn said he might not describe the Steitz Club meeting where he was informed of the video’s existence, as well as passed along the suggestion that he drop out of the race, as an act of goodwill.
“It was given, I think, as a heads up – this is coming,” said Kuhn.
Kuhn said that as far as he knew, Bova was correct that campaigns may place signs in the public right-of-way and it’s not up to the land owner.
“I’ve not studied the laws,” said Kuhn, adding that he felt the best placement of signs was in somebody’s yard or property to serve as an almost personal endorsement.
Kuhn said that he had not spoken to Alex about where specifically the signs were placed, but he didn’t feel that was the primary issue.
“The issue was that when he was taking our signs, he touched one of theirs,” said Kuhn. “It shouldn’t have even been touched, wherever it was located.
“That’s not his responsibility – the point is that wouldn’t be his responsibility, even if he knew a sign was placed somewhere illegally. If it were on my front yard, or our neighbor’s front yard, and he knew they didn’t want it there, it wouldn’t be his responsibility, or my responsibility, to remove it. It would be – notify that property owner. So if it’s in the right-of-way or private property, it’s not our sign, we shouldn’t touch it. And we wouldn’t condone that and I think everyone knows that.”
Kuhn said he has not talked to the property owner directly at any point.
Kuhn confirmed that Alex worked for the Turzai campaign in Pittsburgh after first getting involved in politics through a campaign for former state Rep. Frank Ryan, and said that Alex was very knowledgable about campaigns and rules.
Kuhn said that Bova’s comments about throwing Alex under the bus were Bova’s opinion based on his perspective, but that he wouldn’t do that ever to any of his children.
“If they did something that’s inappropriate, I’m going to acknowledge that and also accept responsibility to deal with it,” said Kuhn. “Ever since our kids were little, you look at any behavior that’s not what you want it to be, the goal is to learn from it and eliminate any bad behavior and point ’em in the right direction from when they’re two years old. So that concept is no different.
“I don’t think any differently of Alex because he made a poor decision that night, and I don’t even think it was much of a decision. It was probably more of a reaction and doing what he thought was the right thing to do but didn’t really think it through.”
Following the Steitz Club meeting on Friday, April 21, the Kuhn campaign was first to post a narrative to Facebook describing the chain of events. The page for the Lebanon County Republican Committee followed up soon after by publishing its own post, with additional allegations of Phillips-Bering sign foul play, including by another Kuhn campaign supporter, Christi Gensler.
“Our trail camera caught a dark colored Cadillac with license plate FTH 6331 that had vandalized our endorsed candidate’s signs as well this past week,” said the GOP post. “This conduct has been documented and also caught on camera. This vehicle, license plate and picture has been traced back to a volunteer on Mike Kuhn’s campaign, Christi Gensler.”
As previously reported by LebTown, vehicle information is regulated in Pennsylvania by PennDOT, and outside of law enforcement and other specific uses (PDF), the ability to look up vehicle ownership by a license plate is not generally available.
Bova said he did not know how the license plate shared in the Facebook post was linked back to Kuhn campaign volunteer Christi Gensler. Bova suggested that someone may have been already familiar with the car or license plate and identified Gensler that way.
Gensler did not respond to LebTown requests for comment.
Bova said the post was made in conjunction with the Phillips-Bering campaign and that he’s responsible for whatever’s posted on the Lebanon County Republican Committee’s page.
LebTown noted that public reaction on the post could be characterized as generally negative. Bova said that he had no desire to comment on what people on Facebook might be saying, but that he has asked others who reached out to him with questions about the party’s communications of the incident to tell him what’s been untrue. Bova said that no one has pointed out to him anything that was false.
Kuhn said that whether it’s Facebook or face-to-face at somebody’s front door, he believes that the candidate’s job is to present information about their background, experience, and thoughts on the challenges they might face and how to address them, and allow voters to make their own decision.
“I trust voters,” said Kuhn. “I don’t want to present any information on my opponents; they can talk about their own qualifications. I’d rather have our campaign focused that way.”
“We’re ready to move on,” said Kuhn.
“We’re gonna stay focused on a positive message, talk about our record, our focus, our attentions, and allow the voters to make an informed decision, and we’re hopeful that the party sees the benefit in promoting each candidate on their own merit and allowing the voters to decide who’s gonna best represent us moving forward.
“At the end of the campaign, on May 16, that evening I’ll be happy to shake hands with whoever is victorious, and if I’m not victorious, I’ll move on and find something else to do at the end of this term, because I love Lebanon County and I want to continue to serve. I’ll find another way if the voters decide differently, but I’d love to continue to do a job that I’m very honored to do.”
Kuhn said he has not discussed the incident with Phillips since the Steitz Club meeting, and has not seen or talked with Bering or Bova at any point since the incident.
Bova said he and the Republican committee are supporting their endorsed candidates, and that this incident could have been avoided if the Kuhn campaign had stopped taking signs.
“They could have listened and not taken signs,” said Bova. “Don’t take someone’s sign and none of this happens. That’s what boggles my mind.”
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