Where recycled politicians go to roost
Sam Rohrer is a former member of the PA House of Representatives (R-128, Berks County), 1993-2010. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Attorney General in 2010 and for US Senator in 2012.
Colin Hanna is a former Chester County Commissioner, 1995-2003. He currently manages a number of organizations dedicated to building walls around the United States and other conservative goals. One of those, Let Freedom Ring, includes Pennsylvania Pastors Network (whose West Chester address is actually Hanna’s home in East Bradford).
Those two former office-holders have now teamed up for conservative ideological and political causes. To explain their plans, they sent a joint email today, which you can read here.
As a potential 501(c)(3) non-profit (its status had apparently not yet been determined then), PPN appeared to cross the line on political involvement in March of 2006, when it organized a “training” session to turn out the conservative vote in Pennsylvania, with then incumbent Senator Rick Santorum as the featured speaker, according to “Pastors’ Get-Out-the-Vote Training Could Test Tax Rules,” New York Times, 3/21/06.
That article goes on to say:
A politician speaking to a religious group is hardly new, and the tax code allows churches and other tax-exempt charities to register voters and to express views on public issues.
But the rules forbid supporting a political party or candidate. Inviting just one candidate to speak, singling out one candidate for special praise and highlighting a combination of issues tailored to one candidate’s campaign are all factors that the I.R.S. considers problematic.
That is especially the case if the discussion is in the context of a get-out-the-vote effort, said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer here who is the former director of the exempt-organizations division of the tax agency….
See also “CREW Files IRS Complaint Against PA Pastors Network for Assisting Sen. Santorum in Re-Election,” Citizens for responsibility and ethics in Washington, 3/22/06.
Despite the above-mentioned support, after two terms in office (1995-2006) Santorum lost to Bob Casey in November, 2006. by 18% of the vote.
Whether as a result of the above-mentioned publicity and complaint, or for some other reason, PPN did not become a 501(c)(3) organization, as its “Contribute” page reads:
“Let Freedom Ring, Inc. is a 501 (c)(4) non-profit corporation, and donations are not tax-deductible as charitable contributions.”
Thus PPN is considered “a project” of Let Freedom Ring, one of the four organizations that founded PPN (two of the others, PA Family Institute and Urban Family Council, are 501(c)(3) organizations). It’s sort of like Mendelian genetics: if two 501(c)(3)’s and two 501(c)(4)’s get together to form a mew organization, is their offspring a 501(c)(3) or a 501(c)(4)?
I pointed out in “To what extent can non-profits support political candidates?” (March 3, 2012), the short answer to that title’s question is “To no extent.”
I should have specified that I meant 501(c)(3) organizations, which are largely tax-deductible, not 501(c)(4) organizations, which are largely not tax-deductible and which include the now prominent SuperPACs. For my comment on some of those, see “The SuperPAC Superdonors” (June 23).
Thus Let Freedom Ring, to which donations are not tax-deductible, can legally campaign for or against candidates for office as long as its chief purpose is promoting “social welfare.”
We all need to watch non-profit organizations (whether religious or not) for signs of political activity contrary to the IRS code.
The issues to watch for 501(c)(3) organizations are how much they lobby and whether they support or oppose candidates to any extent.
The issue to watch for 501(c)(4) organizations is whether the majority of their efforts are dedicated to “social welfare.” That is important since many 501(c)(4)’s run by well-known political operatives like Karl Rove have been pushing the limits this year, and it’s hard to see whose “social welfare” those huge amounts of money are going toward.
See my earlier post for a lot of details; my own paraphrase there of how I understand the rules was:
“if a reasonable person gets the impression that the non-profit, through its words or actions, is supporting a candidate for office in a time frame that could help that candidate in an upcoming election, then it has violated its tax-deductible status.” (I should have said “501(c)(3) non-profit,”)
Another issue to watch is to what extent religious organizations become entangled in political activity. That’s not just a tax issue, but also an ethical and spiritual one.