CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - An On Your Side investigation has uncovered a political group affiliated with Planned Parenthood that is posing as an anti-tolls group to recruit campaign workers.
Our investigation started after a man called our tip line with concerns about the organization, Community Outreach Group. The caller said he applied for a job but grew concerned after realizing the group supported only Democratic candidates.
According to paperwork filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State, Community Outreach Group is governed by the leaders of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is based in Washington, D.C.
But in an ad posted online—including on Craigslist and Indeed.com—Community Outreach group claimed to be "hiring Outreach Workers to knock on doors and convince people to vote and vote for our endorsed candidates."
"We're not happy about the toll plans in Charlotte and we need your help to ensure this boondoggle is reversed," both ads said.
The ad promised to pay workers $15 an hour to campaign against the tolls.
Visit to Community Outreach Group office shows group not focused on tolls
But a visit to the Community Outreach Group office in Charlotte by On Your Side Investigates revealed a group working to advocate for a different cause entirely.
Instead of tolls, the Community Outreach Group office was filled with signs and literature for Democratic candidate like Roy Cooper and candidate for North Carolina House of Representative Chaz Beasley and Mary Belk. Other signs opposed HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill" that requires people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate.
An On Your Side Investigates producer visited the Community Outreach Group office with a hidden camera and asked if the group focused its campaign efforts on opposing tolls on I-77.
"When we're up in Huntersville, yeah, we talk about the toll roads. We're also talking to folks about getting out the vote and that sort of thing," an office worker said. "It all kind of depends on where we are that day and, kind of, what the messaging is that day. It's not exclusively tolls. When we're up in Huntersville, a lot of times it's toll stuff."
Ultimately, though, the office worker told our producer the group wasn't affiliated with any anti-toll group and, instead, was a part of Planned Parenthood.
"We're part of, uh, I don't know how to describe it," one office worker said when asked by our producer what organization Community Outreach Group was affiliated with. "In-house vendor for Planned Parenthood," a second worker said from another room.
Anti-tolls advocates respond
The job posting from Community Outreach Group drew a strong response from Kurt Naas, who founded Widen I-77, a non-profit dedicated to opposing the I-77 toll lanes.
"This strikes me as a Trojan Horse. Basically, you have a group that's found an issue that resonates with the Lake Norman voter, but they really have a different agenda," Naas said.
Naas' group is a non-profit and does not endorse political candidates. But a separate group, I-77 Business Plan, has endorsed a slate of candidates—including both Republicans and Democrats.
"(I-77 Business Plan) has come out with their list of endorsements and I'll be you that their list of candidates does not match this list of candidates," Naas said.
On Twitter Monday afternoon, I-77 Business Plan called the job ads from Community Outreach Group "deceitful manipulation of concerns" regarding I-77 tolls.
Planned Parenthood deletes job ads after questions from WBTV
The job ads recruiting outreach workers to work against I-77 tolls were removed by Community Outreach Group less than a day after On Your Side Investigates sent links to the ads to a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood.
A URL for the Craigslist ad claiming to be from an anti-tolls group shows the post has been deleted. The ad on Indeed.com shows the job is "no longer available on Indeed."
Prior to the ads being removed, though, a spokeswoman defended them with the following statement:
"To identify the best and most passionate canvassers, Community Outreach Group has a variety of job postings that talk about the different issues canvassers will address with voters. When potential canvassers come in for the interview, Community Outreach
Group makes sure they are comfortable talking about all of the issues and talking points. Anyone who is uncomfortable with any talking point can discontinue the interview or decline any subsequent job offer."
Later, the spokeswoman said Community Outreach Group was looking for workers who oppose the I-77 tolls as part of a collaboration with a separate group called Aim Higher Now.
"Community Outreach Group is running a canvassing program for Planned Parenthood Action PAC North Carolina working together with Aim Higher Now," the spokeswoman said. "Canvassers working for this program talk about a variety of issues related to this partnership, including women's health, education, and tolling."
Aim Higher Now is a project of North Carolina Citizens Protecting Our schools, a non-profit advocacy group.
Most Recently, Aim Higher Now has focused on education-related issues but has broadened their issue portfolio as election day approaches, an attorney representing the group told On Your Side Investigates.
"Aim Higher Now is collaborating with Planned Parenthood Action PAC North Carolina through Community Outreach Group to talk with voters in Mecklenburg County about issues of importance to them, including the I-77 toll lanes, education and
HB 2," attorney Michael Weisel, General Counsel for North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools said.
Door hanger: See a digital version of the campaign flyer paid for by Aim Higher Now
Weisel provided two versions of a campaign door hanger that includes mention of I-77 tolls along with other issues. The campaign material provided by Weisel was paid for by Aim Higher Now, not the Community Outreach Group.
Separate campaign door hangers obtained by On Your Side Investigates that is labeled as having been paid for by Community Outreach Group does not make any mention of tolls.
Watch WBTV News on Tuesday at 6:00 to see footage from our hidden camera visit to the Community Outreach Group office in Charlotte and see what happened when investigative reporter Nick Ochsner showed up with a camera and microphone
to get answers.