How can money be given to a campaign but not be considered a campaign contribution?
That’s a question for pistol instructor Nino Vitale, a state lawmaker representing the 85th District.
Vitale, R-Urbana, is running unopposed for a fourth term in the Ohio House of Representatives. He is spending some of his time this summer privately teaching concealed carry classes at his ranch.
He’s gotten his campaign committee involved in an unusual way.
Vitale advertises the lessons on his Facebook page. With over 38,000 followers to his page, Vitale’s classes sell out quickly. After his first class filled up, he advertised three more, then another three more after that.
Several of the registration forms are now defunct, but as of this writing, one page for a July 21 class is still able to be viewed.
The cost of attending a four-hour class taught by Vitale is $100. He’s given participants two options on how to pay. They can send money by Venmo (a digital payment app), and the class registration form also links to the Vitale campaign’s online donation portal.
For a $100 donation to the Friends to Elect Nino Vitale committee, they are given a spot on the class roster.
However, Vitale claims on the class registration form that this money does not go to his political campaign.
“This is NOT a campaign contribution,” the form reads, “so if you go through the (donation page), you will not be donating to the campaign, although it says you will. We just use that as a means for people to have alternative methods of instant payment to hold your seat for the class.”
Elsewhere on the registration form, it states: “We use my political sight (sic) to receive the money but it will not be considered a political contribution.”
The Ohio Capital Journal sought insight about Vitale’s fundraising practices from campaign finance examiners with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office.
In sum: Candidates are in fact allowed to solicit campaign donations by selling private goods and services. Candidates often host fundraising events such as dinners or auctions, with the proceeds going to their campaigns.
Vitale’s event differs in that it is not being advertised as a political fundraiser — the donation link is presented merely as a way in which to pay for his private service of providing concealed carry training.
State law requires political candidates to report contributions to their committees through regular campaign finance disclosures. “Contributions” are defined by state law as any payment “that occurs for the purpose of influencing the results of an election.”
In Vitale’s case, it appears his committee will be required to report any contributions from class attendees that come in through his website donation page.
However, it is unclear what Vitale intends to do with that money. If contributions must be politically connected and he is telling participants their funds aren’t contributions, it is possible he plans to have the committee reimburse each person’s $100 transaction.
State laws are meant to keep political funds separate from a candidate’s private work. Campaign committees must establish a bank account separate from a candidate’s personal or business account, and political contributions can only be deposited into a campaign account.
Messages left by voicemail and email to Vitale have not been returned.
The Urbana legislator often promotes gun ownership on social media.
“An armed citizenry is the first defense, the best defense, and the final defense against tyranny,” Vitale posted on June 24.
Vitale’s repeatedly referred to Gov. Mike DeWine as being “tyrannical” and a “dictator.” His daily Facebook posts come with the hashtag #EndMedicalTyranny in criticism of the state’s health orders.
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.