Rick Cohen: Non-profits in the firing line in the presidential campaign

The firewalls between public charities and partisan political campaigning are blurry at best, writes our US columnist

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

The 2016 presidential campaign is under way, with the formal announcements of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, and non-profits are attracting news coverage.

For the Republican Senator Cruz, the issue is where he announced his candidacy. He made the televised announcement in front of 11,000 or so young people at Liberty University in Blacksburg, Virginia. It's the nation's largest Christian evangelical university, founded by Moral Majority icon Rev Jerry Falwell and run by his son, Rev Jerry Falwell Jr. Student attendance at the Cruz event was mandatory: skipping it was, like skipping class, not acceptable. Liberty is a public charity and as such is prohibited from partisan political activity; but it allowed its facility to be used for a campaign rally - a violation of Internal Revenue Service rules.

The brother of former President George W Bush is also likely to run for President. At the start of 2015, Jeb Bush resigned from the board positions he held in a number of non-profits, including his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes free-market models of education reform.

FEE had raked in substantial sums from right-wing funders such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, mainstream funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and education-related for-profits such as Pearson and K12.

The Bradley Foundation, the nation's foremost ideologically conservative funder, says it is strictly non-political and non-partisan, but that is a difficult stance for its chief executive, Michael Grebe, who chaired the election campaigns of the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Walker leads in Republican presidential campaign polls, so it is hard to imagine Grebe sitting out the all but assured presidential campaign of his political protege from the Badger State.

The firewalls between public charities and partisan political campaigning are blurry at best. In charge of enforcing the no-politics rule is the IRS, whose budget congressional Republicans have slashed, leaving it short of staff. In his presidential announcement, Cruz explicitly called for the elimination of the IRS, which has shown little energy for taking on this question in the past. If it takes action now, one can assume that its decisions will be too late for this presidential cycle.

Rick Cohen, is the national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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