March 9, 2020, Columbus Dispatch
Columbus State Community College Development Foundations, Inc., commonly called the Columbus State Foundation, recently provided a $315,000 contribution to Citizens for Columbus State, a group organized to campaign for a spending bond to that would pay for improvements to the school. The bond vote, Issue 21, will be held on March 17. The vote is for a 24-year bond to raise $300 million to purchase sites, buildings, equipment and technology for the Columbus community.
The Foundation was created to support the college and “administers more than 200 scholarships and provide more than $300,000 in aid each year.” It is the largest contribution of the $1.9 million raised by Citizens for Columbus State since the campaign kickoff in the fall. They raised $947,000 since the beginning of this year, according to the campaign finance report that was filed pre-primary; about $1.4 million had been spent through February 26.
The contribution from the Foundation to the bond advocacy group is being questioned by a taxpayer advocacy group, Taxpayers Advocating Fair Taxation (TAFT). TAFT spokesman Joe Motil says the Foundation’s donation is “inappropriate” and raises “serious questions.”
“They just donated from their foundation to this campaign,” Motil says, “and they don’t even know if it’s going to pass.”
It is not just the advocacy group that’s scrutinizing the donation. The Internal Revenue may have issues with the contribution to a campaign for votes:
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Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
It is illegal for a philanthropic foundation or public charity to provide funds for a political campaign. Any activities deemed to be biased toward or against a particular group are prohibited. While this campaign is not for an individual candidate, its whole reason for being is to influence voters in a particular direction.
Now, it can be argued that this isn’t a sign of bias toward an individual, but the bond will affect taxpayers. Voter influence is such a touchpoint that some private foundations will even avoid funding any grant request that uses the word “campaign” in its programming. There is too fine a line here, between the Internal Revenue Service and Ohio state regulations, to take the chance of losing tax-exempt status at worst, or losing face at the very least.
One last thing: Citizens for Columbus State paid $70,000 to a consulting company, Gehr, LLC, that’s led by Terri Gehr, the former interim executive director of the Columbus State Foundation. Citizens’ spokesperson, Jen Detwiler, said in an email to the Columbus Dispatch that Gehr left the Foundation in October and started with Citizens on November 1st, so although Gehr’s name was still on the Foundation website until this past Monday. While she may not have been with the Foundation when the contribution to Citizens was made, any influence Gehr might still have with the Foundation should be closely reviewed as a possible conflict of interest.
The mission of the foundation—with $18 million in assets, including an endowment worth about $5 million—is to “generate, receive, hold, invest, manage, and allocate funds and property for the advancement, achievement, and support” of Columbus State Community College educational programs. The $315,000 could have been used, according to mission, directly on the technology and programs for the new building, instead of a promotion to sway voters.—Marian Conway