One of many problems with politics these days is group-based generalizations. Everybody gets grouped into one thing, and all views, actions, and inactions are then attributed to a group regardless of the connection. This crystallized for me when Advance Indiana referred to the hypocrisy of Democrats over non-profit entities. Here’s the deal.
Sharon Pierce, the CEO of the Villages, Inc., and its auxiliary organization, Prevent Child Abuse Indiana (both of which go some good work), appeared last night during 60 Minutes in a campaign ad that speaks glowingly of Governor Daniels. The problem is that both of these organizations are 501(c)(3) non-profits, which means that they enjoy tax exempt status, but they must refrain from engaging in political advocacy.
At the outset, let me say that I am not a tax lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ve read the IRS provision restricting 501(c)(3)'s from engaging in politics, and I do not see how having the CEO of two specifically identified organizations gush about a candidate complies with the law.
So I wrote Ms. Pierce a letter today encouraging her to have Daniels pull the ad and to establish a policy to prohibit any officer or board member of either The Villages, Inc. or Prevent Child Abuse Indiana from appearing in future political ads with organizational attribution. Not only does such activity risk tax-exempt status, it risks ill-will among celebrity endorsers and politically active potential donors. In my letter, I noted that Colts coach, Tony Dungee, had been in a public service announcement for Prevent Child Abuse Indiana. I do not personally know Dungee’s politics, but I offered that he might be put in the awkward position of having to explain why he just did an ad for an organization that endorsed a campaign he might oppose. Moreover, any 501(c)(3) that plays politics risks alienating donors who might otherwise agree with the agency's mission but not its politics.
Anyway, within minutes of my letter being sent, Jim Shella blogged on it, which prompted Advance Indiana to note:
It’s funny that Marion County Democrats didn’t see anything wrong with Andre Carson’s campaign using Forest Manor Multi-Service Center to stage press conferences to promote his campaign at the center. And didn’t one or more not-for-profit employees appear in ads for Carson’s campaign?
First, notice how Advance Indiana says that “Marion County Democrats” didn’t see anything wrong. To have hypocrisy, you need person A (Chris Worden) calling into question a practice that person A (again, Chris Worden) has sanctioned in the past.
Respectfully, we cannot say what “Marion County Democrats” thought about the “Forest Manor situation” because we haven’t polled them to see if they even knew about it. But we can say what Chris Worden thought about it. He didn’t know about it at the time and still is not sure of the specifics.
If any individual, organization, or candidate can use the facility without cost, I’m not sure letting Carson do so constitutes advocacy. It seems more akin to an “open door” policy. If, however, there is normally a cost to use the center for a brief period, and the Congressman didn’t pay it, he should do so immediately. No 501(c)(3) organization should provide any service to a political campaign without charging the “market rate.” If I learn of a facility that does this, I’ll call them out on it as well as the candidate, be they Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian.
With respect to employees of Forest Manor appearing in a Carson ad, though, this is a trickier issue. I’m a firm proponent of individuals being able to support a candidate as individuals. If Ms. Pierce and her boards want to write checks to Governor Daniels, they can (and many have). But when it comes to political ads, the only way employees should appear is without organizational identification.
Accordingly, Forest Manor would have only acted improperly had it given its employees permission to appear in an Andre Carson ad specifically either with identification as Forest Manor employees or on regular work time. Absent that imprimatur, the employees appear only as individuals.
Admittedly, some leaders of organizations are so recognizable that even appearing without attribution will have the feel of an organizational endorsement. Quite frankly, this is something with which we’ll have to live because we honor the 1st Amendment. But the Daniels ad isn’t one of those situations.
To do right in this situation, all the Boards for The Villages and Prevent Child Abuse had to ask was this question:
“Is Ms. Pierce’s individual presence in the TV commercial made even remotely more advantageous for Governor Daniels by virtue of her identification as CEO of The Villages and Prevent Child Abuse Indiana?”
The answer is, “Of course, it was!” In fact, precisely what makes the ad powerful is that Ms. Pierce is speaking from organizational knowledge that she would not have but for her role as head of these not-for-profits. It seems impossible to assert that these organizations have not handed their PR heft, public good will, and organizational knowledge to Governor Daniels for his political benefit.
I am not interested in revoking the 501(c)(3) tax status of The Villages, Prevent Child Abuse Indiana, or any similar organization. I just want them to stop playing politics. When these organizations receive dollars, be they from grants, donors, or fees for services, they grow in the public’s esteem by virtue of not paying taxes. The tax exemption frees dollars that are used to spread the organization’s mission and good name in the community. To then turn that name over for the benefit of a particular party or individual candidate is just inappropriate, in my opinion.
So now everybody is on notice. Play politics as a 501(c)(3) entity, get chastised by Chris Worden. (I'm sure you're all terrified). Now, where is the hypocrisy again?!?
As a final note, Jim Shella’s blog identified me as a “public defender.” That is not an adequate description, as it (ironically) might convey that I am speaking for an agency. It is correct that I am currently a contract public defender, but my words were not written as a full-time employee for the Marion County Public Defender Agency. I would never want anyone to think I’m speaking for that agency when I’m not. This was simply me, as an individual, exercising my 1st Amendment rights by writing a letter on an individual lawyer’s private stationery.