LEXINGTON — Concerned about heightened “outside scrutiny” of the 6th District Republican Committee, a Staunton party leader asked that the committee not divulge sensitive information regarding its legal troubles to the public.

Matt Fitzgerald made the motion at a heated committee meeting Thursday night in Lexington.

Party leaders convened to vote on an appeal of the committee’s decision to spend $30,000 — nearly emptying its bank account — to hire an attorney to defend the committee and past members against three complaints to the Federal Election Commission.

Chairwoman Jennifer Brown hoped for a brief meeting, but it quickly turned into people talking over one another and disputing rules.

“Democrats love to promote public in-fighting,” Fitzgerald said when he introduced the surprise motion at the end of the meeting. “Frankly, I think some Republicans do, as well.”

Fitzgerald’s motion passed. Brown said it will apply narrowly to information protected by attorney-client privilege, and release of information will require an approved motion from the committee.

Some members at the meeting described the motion as a “gag order.”

Three complaints were filed ahead of the May convention that led to the nomination of Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, as the Republican candidate to face Democrat Jennifer Lewis of Augusta County in November in a contest to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, for the seat that stretches from Roanoke to Lynchburg and north to Front Royal.

Two of the complaints make accusations against the committee as a whole.

The committee voted 20-12 last month to use $30,000 to hire high-powered Republican election law attorney James Bopp, from Indiana, to defend the committee as well as former committee Chairman Scott Sayre and a handful of other party officials.

Cynthia Dunbar, who lost to Cline, already hired Bopp before the committee to defend herself against an FEC claim that Sayre’s company made an illegal in-kind donation when it hired her last year. Dunbar has said the allegation is bogus. The motion to hire Bopp includes language excluding funds being used for Dunbar’s defense.

The appeal hinged on two matters: an improper vote on the motion to hire Bopp and that hiring Bopp was a conflict of interest since he’s already representing Dunbar on two of the same complaints.

The appeal failed by a vote of 20-11 Thursday. Those who voted in favor to hire Bopp have mostly been Dunbar supporters who endorsed Sayre’s re-election bid. Waynesboro Republican Committee Chairman Ken Adams made the motion to hire Bopp.

The appeal will now go to Virginia GOP’s governing State Central Committee. It meets in September, leaving the committee just two months to sort out its financial situation before the general election, limiting its ability to spend money on getting its candidates elected.

The Republican Party of Virginia hasn’t seen the terms of the committee’s agreement with the Bopp Law Firm, said Executive Director John Findlay. He said the party has in the past defended current and former committee officers for actions taken in their official role on the committee.

“However, if the committee’s decision was to expend their resources to cover the legal expenses of a former District officer for issues which do not directly relate to their capacity as a committee officer such an action would be totally unprecedented in the history of the Party,” he said in an email.

In a separate email obtained by The Roanoke Times, Findlay addresses Adams directly, telling him while the state party won’t pay for legal matters, it will help the committee resolve them in a “fiscally responsible manner.”

“Regarding the FEC complaints, as they relate to the 6th District Committee and its former treasurers, those matters should be resolved by a friendly lawyer for $2,500 or less,” he wrote.

Brown has publicly denounced the efforts to hire Bopp, saying some on the committee are trying to “hamstring” her ability to perform her role as chairwoman.

Adams and Fitzgerald said in a joint statement Friday that the FEC charges are “frivolous.”

“That said, any federal investigation is serious, and the committee deserves a vigorous defense, both to protect it from legal liability and to protect the reputations of all of its members,” they said.

Amy Friedenberger is the politics reporter for The Roanoke Times. She's been a reporter here since 2014. Previously, she worked for newspapers in Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @ajfriedenberger.

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