Did Harris, McAuliffe and the religious community violate IRS laws?
Vice President Harris has produced a two-minute video urging voters in Virginia to cast their ballot for Democrat candidate and former Governor Terry McAuliffe. So far, that seems like standard operating procedure in political campaigns.
The Harris video is specifically targeting black voters. Nothing unusual about that.
The video was produced for use in black churches throughout Virginia. Whoa!! Was the video crafted to be shown at black churches in an effort to get parishioners to vote of McAuliffe? Was this an endorsement video to be played during or after Church services? The answer to those questions is “yes” … and “yes.”
There in lies the problem. Churches are virtually all what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers a charity – designated by IRS rules as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. That means they are not required to pay income taxes or sales taxes. The also do not pay property taxes, but that is not an IRS issue.
In return for Uncle Sam subsidizing the charitable work of the churches, they are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics. Churches – and all those other 501(c)(3) organizations – are not allowed to endorse candidates or host partisan events on their premises or under their sponsorship.
In other words, Harris, McAuliffe and the various churches have violated a very clear and specific law that can result in fines and the cancelling of the churches’ special tax status.
Truth be known, black churches have flagrantly violated the IRS rule historically. Some say it is a tradition that goes back to the days of slavery. Travelling preachers would bring both political news and the word of God to slaves – often using a coding, the residual of which can be seen in the black political culture today.
In my long experience in campaigning, I have seen the double standard up close. White churches in Chicago generally shunned political activity – often discouraging the distribution of campaign literature even on the sidewalk beyond Church property. Conversely, I have attended scores of black church services in which political endorsements came from the pulpit – sometimes by the candidates themselves.
I garnered some of the experience when working as the campaign communications director for Mayor Eugene Sawyer – the Windy City’s second black mayor. Since I am a lover of gospel I would spend all day Sundays travelling with the Mayor from one black church to another.
The skirting of the law largely a practice of local churches and local politicians – so there was not a lot of light shed on the question of legality. But the Harris video puts a whole new light on the subject – a much brighter light … a national light.
As a lawyer and prosecutor, we can safely assume that Harris was well aware of the IRS regulation. It is impossible to believe that McAuliffe did not know. Many of the more than 300 black pastors who were provided the video may not have known they were being encouraged to do something illegal – risking their tax-free status. It has been such a tradition in black churches fo so long that many pastors might not know the specifics.
Maybe the White House can claim that they did not know the 300 pastors would show the video during services. According to Jonathan Turley, Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School, if Harris puts the blame on the pastors, she is essentially “throwing them under the bus.”
Turley went on to say, “there is a legitimate interest in whether the White House knowingly participated in an effort to campaign in churches in violation of their federal obligations.”
If it was known that the videos were being sent to churches, didn’t Harris make sure there was a warning on the video NOT to use it during services or on Church property. Or is it possible that, when making the video, Harris did not know that the McAuliffe campaign intended to use it exclusively in black churches? Nope.
There is one sentence spoken by Harris that puts the issue squarely in the White House camp. They knew the purpose and distribution of the video. After given McAuliffe the standard endorsement, Harris said in the video, “So please, vote after today’s service.” Busted.
If you are inclined to doubt Harris, the White House and McAuliffe would so brazenly thwart an IRS regulation, check out the “Johnson Amendment” – enacted into law by then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. The law defines a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Pretty clear … eh?
Do not expect the IRS to be going after Harris, McAuliffe or any of the pastors. This is a regulation that is rarely enforced – and then only against organizations on the right side of the political spectrum.
So, there ‘tis.