State Legislators Behaving Badly

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Sally Kern Oklahoma July 2 2009, Image Credit: David Glover

January 27, 2015;Colorado Independent

Some policy advocates remind us that because of the gridlock in Congress, the action is at the state level, where legislatures pass thousands of bills annually compared to the couple of hundred emerging from the Washington Beltway. If that’s the case, these state legislators present hurdles that might dampen the enthusiasm of the most ardent nonprofit activist.

  • Dateline – Colorado Springs, Colorado: One would hope that a state legislator would know how to establish a nonprofit organization, but Republican State Representative Gordon Klingenschmitt’s nonprofit, named “Pray in Jesus Name” (not “Jesus’ Name”) has had its troubles. Klingenschmitt apparently failed to file required paperwork, which led to the Colorado Secretary of State suspending its registration as a charity. That hasn’t deterred Klingenschmitt from continuing to solicit donations on his online TV program, “Pray in Jesus Name News.” On the organization’s website, donors are told that their gifts are tax deductible. “God loves a cheerful giver,” says Klingenschmitt on his show, where he is known as the televangelist “Dr. Chaps.” Klingenschmitt (or his alter ego, Dr. Chaps) has demonstrated areas of arcane knowledge beyond his approach to creating charitable organizations. He has compared “homosexual congressman Jared Polis,” as he refers to the man representing Colorado’s Second Congressional District, to ISIS, suggesting that Polis will “join ISIS in beheading Christians, not just in Syria—[but] right here in America.” As a military chaplain, Klingenschmitt claims to have performed an exorcism on a lesbian solder. The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed Klingenschmitt’s Pray in Jesus Name Project as an anti-LGBT hate group. (He’s also got a bill floating around that would permit makers of wedding cakes and marriage confections to deny service for same-sex marriages.) Having Dr. Chaps in the Colorado state legislature may be entertaining to cable TV comedians, but it is troubling for nonprofits. After the Colorado Independent revealed that Dr. Chaps was soliciting tax-deductible donations in violation of the law, within hours Klingenschmitt sent the missing paperwork electronically to the Colorado Secretary of State and claimed that his nonprofit was in good standing with the state, but state officials said that wasn’t accurate. It isn’t clear how Klingenschmitt/Chaps has a nonprofit out of compliance with Colorado state law, but has a Form 990 for 2013 under the name of Persuade the World Ministries, referencing the organization’s 501(c)(3) status, charitable donations received as far back as 2010, and a property valued at $2.6 million. Rather than looking to legislator Klingenschmitt/Chaps for policy, nonprofits had better keep an eye on the legislator/televangelist to make sure he doesn’t cause nonprofits undue collateral damage by his antics.
  • Dateline – Austin, Texas: Republican state representative Molly White decamped from Austin on Texas Muslim Capitol Day, a biannual event organized by the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, but left instructions for the staff in her state capitol office if Muslims come to visit: make them publicly renounce Islamic terrorism and require them to pledge allegiance to the United States and its laws. “We’ll see how long they stay in my office,” she wrote on her Facebook page. White’s Muslim Day reaction follows a series of other unfriendly comments toward Muslims made by Texas officials, including State Representative Debbie Riddle’s 2012 denunciation of U.S. military cultural sensitivity training programs, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s public fretting that the U.S. might become an Islamic country, and former Texas state senator Dan Patrick’s walking out of Muslim prayers in the Capitol in 2007 and 2012—Patrick is now Texas’s lieutenant governor. The 420,000 Muslims in Texas and the 100 or so, mostly children, who showed up for Texas Muslim Capitol Day in all likelihood didn’t find White’s instructions to her staff particularly welcoming.
  • Dateline – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Republican State Representative Sally Kern introduced and then withdrew House Bill 1597 that would allow businesses to deny “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges related to any lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, group or association.” Although Kern received negative reactions from LGBT advocacy groups and others, she was unfazed. “Who cares? We are Oklahoma citizens. We are Oklahoma legislators up here. We deal with the issues of Oklahoma. Frankly, I don’t care what the media thinks from Washington, D.C., or Washington state,” Rep. Kern said, reacting to criticism of the denial of service bill and two others she proposed—one that would prohibit state tax money from being used for same-sex marriage licensing and another that would permit parents to obtain conversion therapy for gay children. Outdoing Kern in LGBT antagonism is Republican state representative Todd Russ, an Assemblies of God minister whose opposition to gay marriage runs so deep that he’d rather the state prohibit any marriages, gay or straight, other than those performed by religious officials. Judges, clerks, and other secular officials would not be allowed to perform or issue licenses on their own for same-sex marriages, despite the federal courts’ overturning of a ban on gay marriages approved by Oklahoma voters. An article published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State pointed out that the language of Russ’s bill is more restrictive than it seems, as it authorizes marriage licenses to be issued only by “an ordained or authorized preacher or minister of the Gospel, priest or other ecclesiastical dignitary of any denomination who has been duly ordained or authorized by the church to which he or she belongs to preach the Gospel, or a rabbi.” In other words, if you’re not Christian or Jewish or willing to go for a common law marriage, you’re unlucky in marriage in Oklahoma if Russ’s bill is enacted.
  • Dateline – Florissant, Missouri: State Representative Keith English is leaving the Democratic Party, ostensibly because of his opposition to his former political colleagues on issues of gun rights and women’s reproductive choice. English represents Florissant, the St. Louis suburb that’s neighbor to suburban Ferguson, where a white policeman killed an unarmed black teenager. The police killing in Ferguson may also be an element in English’s estrangement from Democrats. In December, for example, English wrote on his Facebook account that a march organized by the NAACP from Ferguson to the state capitol in Jefferson City to protest racial profiling would be more productive if redirected to Mexico—and to help, English posted a map with a blue line from Missouri to Mexico. In a recent Democratic caucus meeting, English responded to criticism of his vote for a Republican tax cut bill with a non sequitur that Michael Brown wouldn’t have been killed “if he hadn’t been breaking the rules,” after which he left the meeting in a huff. Perhaps English might benefit from learning that the rules that he said Brown was violating—walking in the middle of the street—don’t usually warrant being shot down by the police.
  • Dateline – New York City, N.Y.: And then there’s the saga of Sheldon Silver, New York State Assembly Speaker—or, at least, he was until he resigned that position last week following his indictment and arrest for corruption. Explaining the indictment, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the state capitol a “cauldron of corruption,” with Silver as one of the ringleaders. Silver was charged with taking more than $4 million in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legal fees. Someone like Silver who’s willing to pull the levers of bribes and kickbacks to exercise power in Albany had his share of connections to the nonprofit sector. For example, one beneficiary of state government has been the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which was politically close to Silver during the time that former CEO William Rapfogel embezzled $9 million of its assets. In the indictment, one of Silver’s alleged schemes was to direct a half-million dollars in state funds to Columbia University’s Mesothelioma Center, whose project director, Robert Taub, would then direct people with asbestos-related health complaints to a law firm that then funneled “referral” fees to Silver. In addition, Silver allegedly directed a $25,000 grant to the Shalom Task Force, a nonprofit whose board included Taub’s wife Susan, and helped Taub’s son Jonathan get a job at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, a nonprofit closely connected to the Speaker as a longtime beneficiary of so-called “members items.” As NPQ has detailed repeatedly about New York State’s practice of allowing state legislators to direct grants to favored nonprofits with little or no oversight, Silver was a protector and expert implementer of the technique. Now that the assembly speaker’s indictment includes the misuse of nonprofits, the taint of suspicion will spread to other nonprofits. The lesson of Shelly Silver: In New York, beware of state legislators bearing gifts.

State Representative Klingenschmitt believes that President Obama is possessed by demons, though he hasn’t apparently tried to perform an exorcism in the White House. “Dr. Chaps” and the other state legislators profiled here, based on their actions during the past couple of weeks, should remind nonprofit advocates that the legislative action may well be at the state level, but will necessitate well grounded lobbying strategies to avoid being sucked into a vortex of kooks and crooks.—Rick Cohen