Cautionary Tale for Organizations Doing Lobbying and Political Work

It is always a difficult decision to make for an organization -- do we spend money on legal fees for something we don't know/think will be an issue, or do we put those much needed funds towards our activities and take the risk that it might come back to bite us later?  For organizations that lobby and/or undertake activities in the political arena on controversial issues, the risk is even greater.  While the IRS may not be as responsive to complaints as some of us would like*, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board reviews and takes seriously the complaints coming through the door.  If you think you may have political enemies out there – watch out!  Just this week, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board released findings with regard to a complaint they received from an opponent of Catholics for Marriage Equality.  Below is a summary of those findings (facts I cite come solely from there). 

Catholics for Marriage Equality (C4ME) is a program of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM).  CPCSM is a 501(c)(3) organization that has been around for about 32 years “and has worked to create environments of respect, acceptance, and safety within both Church and society wherein the experiences, insights, and integrity of LGBT persons and their families are recognized, affirmed and celebrated.”  Good work to be doing, in my humble opinion.  According to CPCSM, the purpose of C4ME “is not to defeat the marriage amendment, but to educate Catholics about what marriage equality means (i.e. the granting of civil marriage rights, benefits and responsibilities to same-sex couples), why marriage is important to LGBT people, and why Catholics can in good conscience support marriage equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation.”

The kinds of activities that they conducted:

-          Produced buttons, bumper stickers, and lawn signs displaying the message “Another Catholic Voting No”

-          A self-produced series of short videos with local LGBT Catholics expressing their ideas on family and marriage; these were premiered at Riverview Theater, and featured on the C4ME website

-          Presence at Minnesotans United for All Families (the campaign leading the fight against the amendment) events

-         Their executive director spoke at various Catholic gatherings focused on the marriage amendment

C4ME is not a “political committee” that must register in Minnesota.  According to Minnesota campaign finance law (Chapter 10A), a Political Committee is “an association whose major purpose is to…promote or defeat a ballot question, other than a principal campaign committee or a political party unit.”  C4ME is a part of CPCSM, an organization with a long history of work in Minnesota.  CPCSM existed long before this amendment was even a thought, and thus does not exist with a major purpose of defeating the marriage amendment. 

However…

They should have registered as a political fund. 

A political fund is merely an accounting mechanism used to segregate money used for political purposes.  It is not a separate entity.  Many of the activities of C4ME fell under the definition of “expenditure” – which is a “purchase or payment of money or anything of value, or an advance of credit, made or incurred for the purpose of…promoting or defeating a ballot question.”  An expenditure does not have to involve an explicit statement to vote for or against a ballot measure.  In Board guidance issued  on the topic – the Board said that an expenditure also includes those items/communications that are “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a ballot question measure.”  The Board found (and I agree) that the lawn signs, bumper stickers, buttons, C4ME website, blog, the video series, and many of the public presentations and forums hosted by C4ME were all expenditures for the purpose of defeating a ballot question.  Due to its failure to file, C4ME is now facing late filing penalties on the numerous filings it failed to make.

Moral of the story?  Particularly taking into consideration both the money and time that was likely spent dealing with this issue – it pays to seek advice from a qualified attorney and deal with these issues prospectively, versus playing clean-up after the fact.

 

*This is a massive understatement.  From what those of us in this sector can tell, the IRS is doing little to no investigation into complaints of organizations crossing the line in the lobbying/political arena.  Also, I do not wish this kind result on anyone (full disclosure – I support wholeheartedly Catholics for Marriage Equality’s mission), BUT the system doesn’t work if only some people play by the rules.  While I definitely don’t like seeing organizations I support in trouble…. I would want the same standards upheld for organizations on the other side.

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