IRS Scrutinizes Hollywood Conservatives’ Nonprofit Organization

Abe

January 23, 2014; New York Times

Conservatives in Hollywood are considered by many to be the exception rather than the rule, but they do exist. A group of approximately 1,500 have associated under the name “Friends of Abe” (referring to Abraham Lincoln) for almost a decade. Prominent members include actors Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, and Kelsey Grammer. Jeremy Boreing, executive director, states that the organization “has no political agenda” and that its purpose is “to create fellowship among like-minded individuals.”

Two years ago, Friends of Abe applied for tax exemption as a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The Times article notes that Friends of Abe is similar in nature to the liberal People for the American Way Foundation, founded by television producer Norman Lear, and several other charities founded to promote liberal causes and led by entertainment industry figures.

The IRS has not yet decided on Friends of Abe, however. It has sent multiple requests for supplemental information to the organization, including a request for access to private areas of the nonprofit’s website, which included a membership roster. The IRS is also asking whether speeches and presentations by conservative politicians and political figures constitute impermissible political activity by a charity. Generally, 501(c)(3) regulations that “no substantial part” of a public charity’s activities may be political, and in no case may a 501(c)(3) engage in partisan campaign activity to support or oppose specific candidates. For example, a charity may hold a candidate forum, but all candidates must be invited and given an equal opportunity to participate in the forum.

Is the IRS’s two-year (and still ongoing) process of reviewing Friends of Abe appropriate, or is it continuing evidence of the singling out of groups with politically conservative leanings for special scrutiny? Does having and promoting “fellowship of like-minded individuals” disqualify a nonprofit group from 501(c)(3) recognition, regardless of the purpose and activities of the group?

This story reminds us that the IRS’s issues with conservative groups persist, and that they’re bigger and broader than 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations.—Michael Wyland

  • Patrick Taylor

    There are three things worrying about this whole IRS scandal.

    1 – While they were also targeting progressive groups, it appears they applied much greater scrutiny to conservative groups. Regardless of your politics, you should be worried that the government is targeting groups in opposition to the administration.
    2. The IRS doesn’t seem to know what it is doing. The investigation into the targeting has revealed a department that doesn’t even know what its own rules are.
    3. There is a lot of inappropriate political activity happening at the c3 and c4 level, and this scandal has obfuscated that.

  • Ron Vassallo

    The consistency of these actions is worrisome but the predictable DoJ “no foul” response compounds an obvious problem. As much as I shudder at proposing this action, it may be time for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether the IRS is being wielded as a political billy club. We can’t continue to see all our civil liberties revoked without a sense of outrage.

  • Michael Wyland

    Patrick:

    I agree with much of what you’ve said.

    1) The TIGTA’s report in May, 2013 documented that the targeting was indeed pointed at conservative groups. His analysis of the cases indicated that the liberal groups included in the scrutinized applications were more accidental than intentional. This is supported by the IRS’s internal labelling of the scrutiny as being the “Tea Party cases.”

    2) This may well be true. Pending investigations may help determine who acted willfully and who acted out of ignorance. I’ve written two NPQ newswires documenting the IRS’s declining institutional capacity – one based on another TIGTA report and the other based on statements made by Marcus Owens at a forum in DC a few months ago.

    3) There is both proper and improper political activity happening with 501(c)3, 501(c)4, 501(c)5 and 501(c)6 organizations. While some – intentionally or not – have obfuscated that point, especially by an overemphasis on the 501(c)4 aspect, the TIGTA must be given proper credit for keeping the focus on all four classifications. One difficulty in implementing regulatory changes is that any changes will affect existing nonprofits of all political persuasions.

  • Michael Wyland

    Update 3/17/2014:

    The IRS has approved the Form 1023 application for tax-exemption made by “Friends of Abe” as a 501(c)(3) public charity. See:

    IRS Grants Non-Profit Status to Hollywood Conservative Group Friends of Abe
    http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/irs-grants-non-profit-status-to-hollywood-conservative-group-friends-of-abe-1201135576/