FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: DONOHUE SMEAR OF EDWARDS MAY VIOLATE 501(C)(3) LAWS

DONOHUE MAY HAVE BROKEN LAW PROHIBITING INTERVENTION IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS According to United States law governing the behavior of 501(c)(3) organizations, it seems highly likely that William Donohue--President of the Catholic League, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization--may have broken the...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 02/08/2007

DONOHUE MAY HAVE BROKEN LAW PROHIBITING INTERVENTION IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS

According to United States law governing the behavior of 501(c)(3) organizations, it seems highly likely that William Donohue--President of the Catholic League, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization--may have broken the law by attempting to intervene in a political campaign.

The IRS document Organizational Test – IRC 501(c)(3) (link opens PDF file) states explicitly that an organization with this tax exempt status cannot intervene in a political campaign.

Despite the legal restrictions on his organization, Donohue appears to be using the Catholic League to campaign against John Edwards bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination for President, in particular the IRS strict prohibition for 501(c)(3)'s on "issue advocacy" as a form of political  intervention.

Beyond Donahue's appearances on broadcast media, during which he has spoken out against the John Edwards campaign, The Catholic League which Donahue used its 501(c)(3) non-profit status website to publish the following Press Release that included this explicit attempt to intervene in a political campaign:

Catholic League president Bill Donohue is demanding that presidential hopeful John Edwards fire two recently hired anti-Catholics who have joined his team: Amanda Marcotte as Blogmaster and Melissa McEwan as the Netroots Coordinator.

The IRS information page "Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention for Section 501(c)(3) Organizations" describes a variety of types of "political campaign intervention" that violate an organization's 501(c)(3) status.

The most relevant to Donohue's attempt to intervene in the 2008 Presidential campaign appears to be this section on "Issue Advocacy":

Under federal tax law, section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office.  However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention.  Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.  A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography.   All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.

Now, there is no question that Donohue was attempting to intervene in the Edwards campaign using the resources of The Catholic League.  That is very clear.  The only question is whether the attempt to smear Amanda Marcotte  and Melissa McEwan as "anti-Catholic" can be seen as an attempt to advocate against John Edwards.

In other words, by using The Catholic League to attack two members of Edwards' staff as "anti-Catholic," was Bill Donohue effectively telling Americans not to vote for John Edwards in the 2008 Democratic primaries and the 2008 Presidential elections?

The simple answer seems to be "yes."  Donohue did violate the restrictions of the 501(c)(3), the only way he could have not violated the law would have been (A) to not have demanded changes in the Edwards campaign staff, (B) to have criticized the individuals in the Edwards campaign, but not link that criticism to the campaign, and (C) to not have used the resources of The Catholic League (e.g., to make this campaign Bill Donahue's personal opnions separate from the 501(c)(3) organization he is paid $300,000 per year to head).

Bill Donohue,  of course, has every right according to the U.S. Constitution to use speech as a tactic for intervening in and attempting to influence a political campaign.  He does not, however, have the right to use his tax exempt organization to assist him in that task.

To do so is not only wrong, it is illegal.

©  2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop

© Jeffrey Feldman 2007, Frameshop

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