Liberal nonprofit groups may have broken tax laws in using tax-exempt funds and federal grants to lobby against Bush Cabinet nominees and even for candidates.
Nonprofit policy and advocacy groups that opposed the nominations of John Ashcroft for attorney general and Gale Norton for interior secretary, and spent millions of dollars on behalf of Al Gore's presidential bid, have been receiving federal grants since as early as 1996. Most nonprofits, known in the tax code as Section 501(c) organizations, are tax-exempt and contributions to them are tax deductible.
Because of the strong effort by liberal nonprofit groups to halt the Ashcroft and Norton nominations, critics are beginning to examine whether their policies legally can be supported by public funds and whether any of the public money has been used for partisan politics or lobbying.
In early February, the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm, forwarded to the IRS a list of groups involved in the anti-Ashcroft battle and asked the IRS to determine whether they accurately reported their lobbying activities and whether they are in violation of tax laws.
Lobbying by 501(c) organizations that is intended to influence the presidential-appointment process is considered political activity and must be reported fully. If it has become a major part of the organization's activity, in many cases the privilege of tax-deductibility may be withdrawn.
According to Landmark Legal Foundation President Mark Levin, "Published reports reveal that scores of liberal, 501(c), tax-exempt groups spent the last month, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars, in a well-coordinated and highly organized lobbying campaign against the Ashcroff nomination. They also have announced that they will lobby against future nominees they consider too conservative. The IRS must look at these activities very carefully to ensure that these organizations are not skirting the law or failing to pay their taxes."
As reported here in early January (see "The Left Assaults John Ashcroft" Feb. 12), members of dozens of 501(c) organizations met in Washington at the offices of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), where they launched a comprehensive lobbying campaign against the Ashcroft nomination. Staff of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and of four leading Democratic senators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., were in attendance.
The Landmark Legal Foundation has written to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who was Senate Judiciary Committee chairman during the Ashcroft hearings, seeking the identity of members of the Senate staff in attendance at the lobby-planning meeting, a description of their role at the meeting and whether they attended with his knowledge. "The public has a right to know whether these nonprofit organizations, with your encouragement, are using tax-exempt funds or federal funds to lobby senators" Levin wrote to the highly partisan Leahy. As Insight goes to press, Leahy has not yet responded.
Among those listed as having representatives in attendance were: the American Bar Association (ABA); American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice; Feminist Majority; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium; National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems; National Black Women's Health Project; National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; National Council of Jewish Women; National Education Association; NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund; Organization of Chinese-Americans; Physicians for Social Responsibility; Planned Parenthood (USA); Sentencing Project; Sierra Club; and Youth Law Center.
The ABA was swift to respond to Levin, acknowledging that an ABA employee attended the meeting, but said it was solely for informational purposes and that its observer did not otherwise participate in the meeting or in any of the activities of the coalition of organizations that was formed to oppose the Ashcroft nomination. …