Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mailing List May Arouse Fec Scrutiny of Dole

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mailing List May Arouse Fec Scrutiny of Dole

Article excerpt

Bob Dole, shortly after he announced last year that he was running for president, sent millions of Americans letters urging them to contribute to the Heritage Foundation. And to Citizens Against Government Waste. And to a half-dozen other right-of-center groups.

Dole's advocacy could get his campaign into trouble with the Federal Election Commission. It also could get tax-exempt groups he helped into hot water with the Internal Revenue Service. That's because tax-exempt groups can't play in partisan politics, and Dole can't take help from them - and the letters he wrote for them helped his campaign raise money.

Here's how it worked: The nonprofits paid for the letters, which promoted both Dole and their cause. The nonprofits kept the donations, but passed on to the Dole campaign, free of charge, the names of every contributor he inspired. Those prospects - maybe 200,000 of them - subsequently got letters from Dole asking them to contribute to his campaign.

Dole has not reported these mailing lists as contributions, arguing that they were part of a barter not covered by federal election law. The lists could be worth $40,000 or more, according to direct-mail specialists. Under FEC law, campaigners can't take anything from federally chartered nonprofits. Mailing lists are explicitly banned.

Nor have the tax-exempt groups acknowledged any political help to Dole. IRS law, reiterated in a public-warning notice last month, bars their participation in "any activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate."

Dole and the nonprofits argue that their deals were a simple swap: a politician's fund-raising help for the names of donors attracted.

"We are clearly within our rights to have engaged in this practice," Christina Martin, deputy press secretary for Dole's campaign, said Thursday. "We don't think there are any problems, but if there are, they lie with the nonprofits and the IRS, not the Dole campaign."

In fact, other presidential candidates, including Ronald Reagan, have traded endorsements for mailing lists in the past. But times may be changing, particularly at the IRS.

Tax-exempt groups that take part in politics in any way are "going to get in trouble," warned Marcus Owens, director of its Exempt Organizations Division. In an interview, Owens said he had a record high of more than 30 such cases pending.

Just last month, Owens and the IRS cracked down on tax-exempt groups that advocated electing or unseating particular candidates. That had been a staple motivator in fund-raising appeals of many groups.

Without referring to Dole's deals in particular, Owens said that trades involving mailing lists "could very well be viewed as political intervention because a mailing list is a very valuable item for a political campaign."

Frances Hill, a University of Miami law professor who concentrates on exempt organizations, commented: "The IRS is shooting straight at the heart of a rather common practice. …

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