February 3, 2020; Washington Post
Once again, we are seeing the ways in which nonprofit groups walk the tightrope (or pretend to walk the tightrope) of nonpartisanship in their activities. NPQ has addressed this issue before, but in this case, the blatant flouting of the law seems to beg for intervention. Although the Urban Revitalization Coalition (URC) claims to be nonpartisan, it is hard to believe this when one looks at its actions and activities.
In December, the Reverend Darrell Scott, CEO of the Urban Revitalization Coalition, held a special event for members of the African American community of Cleveland. The event featured a $25,000 cash giveaway for those who attended. Bills were stuffed into envelopes and handed out. Dubbed an “urban development event,” the get-together honored White House official Ja’Ron Smith and spent time praising President Trump’s policies and his programs. Little was nonpartisan about this event, and the lure of cash was clearly what brought many to attend.
The organization’s website spotlights the president and emphasizes the role Rev. Scott plays on The National Diversity Coalition for Trump, an organization that’s known to support Trump’s bid for reelection. One of the stated goals of this group is to “increase the 8 percent African American vote from 2016 by 25 percent in 2020.” If the work of the Urban Revitalization Coalition were voter registration and “getting out the vote,” that would be perfectly legitimate for a nonprofit organization. But when you look at the numbers, something smells fishy. The 8 percent is only the estimated turnout of black voters for Trump in 2016, not the overall number of black voters. If voter registration drives are conducted to only favor a particular candidate, they are prohibited political activities under an organization’s nonprofit status. And, in the URC’s case, they also accepted a $238,000 donation from America First Policies, a group backing Trump’s reelection.
Somehow, all these things—the cash giveaways, the focus on voter registration with one candidate in mind, and the acceptance of donations from partisan organizations—add up to an organization that is a “nonprofit” front for partisan political activities.
If this is not enough, there is one more twist to this story that entangles nonprofit status and partisan electioneering. Ja’Ron Smith’s attendance at the Cleveland “giveaway” event could have legal implications. As a government employee of the Trump White House, Smith can only engage in political activities on his personal time, and government funds cannot be spent for attendance at political events. According to Smith’s official Twitter account, he spent the weekend of the “giveaway” attending events for the government. The Trump campaign claims to have no knowledge of the event, yet a video on the URC YouTube page has the coalition claiming its work was “commissioned by President Donald J. Trump.”
As the accusations and disavowals go back and forth, there are some cautionary tales at play here. The URC, as a nonprofit, has much to lose in terms of reputation and status in ignoring the boundaries of what is and is not partisan. Their website demonstrates their political preferences. They don’t seem to care. Perhaps they are feeling a sense of safety and protection from losing their nonprofit status as long as this administration holds sway. The same may be the case with members of the White House staff who mix partisan campaigning with government work. Even facing legal jeopardy does not seem to be a big deal. But what happens if this administration no longer holds power? Will the IRS and the Department of Justice step in? Or have we sunk to a new low, and will many nonprofits now try crossing the lines to see how far they can go?—Carole Levine