Texas Judge: Poll Watch Group a GOP Front, Not a Nonprofit

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March 28, 2012; Source: Houston Chronicle

How much should one make of the decision by Travis County Court Judge John Dietz that the Tea Party group King Street Patriots, known in Texas for a “True the Vote” poll watching effort targeting purported voter fraud, is not a nonprofit organization, but a front for the Republican Party? In a decision on a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Texas Democratic Party, Judge Dietz said that the Patriots were an unregistered political action committee that had illegally assisted the Republican Party. The Democrats charged that the Patriots had made illegal political contributions to the Texas Republican Party and had held candidate forums restricted to Republican candidates. As one might suspect, the King Street Patriots have challenged the decision as politically biased (Judge Dietz is a Democrat) and provisions of the Texas campaign finance statute as unconstitutional.

The Texas Democratic Party suit questioned the nonprofit bona fides of True the Vote as a front for both the Republicans and the Tea Party group. Catherine Engelbrecht founded both True the Vote and the King Street Patriots. The Patriots are a 501(c)(4) while True the Vote is applying for 501(c)(3) status. Engelbrecht’s contention is that they are separate organizations, and that the Patriots, as a (c)(4), can do things such as hold Republican-only candidate forums that True the Vote cannot and, she says, did not do. The Democrats charged that True the Vote made in-kind donations to the Republicans through the poll watching under the guise of looking for voter fraud.

It may seem like a small, local case dependent on the specifics of the King Street Patriots and True the Vote, but national entities have entered the fray. The King Street Patriots countersuit got help from the Liberty Institute, which has been challenging campaign finance restrictions on behalf of numerous organizations, including religious groups. And the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center filed an amicus brief to defend the constitutionality of the Texas campaign finance statute. This case won’t be the last one in this election cycle questioning the (c)(4) or (c)(3) provenance of politically engaged “nonprofits.”—Rick Cohen

  • Bill KSP

    Rick, The Houston Chronicle as well as the Texas Democratic Party have misled you as to the content of Judge Dietz’s ruling. He only ruled on the constitutionality questions and made no ruling on whether the TDP allegations against King Street Patriots were true or false and no ruling about the non-profit status of the King Street Patriots organization. You are parroting a false headline and false story. Please give your readers the truth: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/nonprofit/2012/03/exercise-caution-when-reading-about-recent-ruling-on-king-street-patriots.html

  • rick cohen

    Dear Bill: Thanks very much for the link to the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog item. We saw the same. It is the challenge we face doing commentary on news reports. It’s surprising that the Houston Chronicle misstated Judge Dietz’s ruling. So, will KSP appeal the Judge’s ruing about the constitutionality of the state statute or let the courts address “the merits of the underlying causes of action raised against King Street,” as Professor Buckles put it on the blog. We’re quite interested here in the issue of 501(c)( 3 )s and 501(c)( 4 )s and believe that the courts have a lot more work ahead of them to clarify what they do, what they don’t do, and what should be done to help the American public recognize and distinguish public charities and social welfare organizations. Thanks again for your comment.

    Rick Cohen