The campaign events coordinator of the Mike Thompson for Congress Committee had only the best of intentions when she prominently placed the names of four charitable non-profit organizations on the invitations for Mike's Eighteenth Annual Mendocino County Pasta Dinner. All money donations to the dinner are political donations that will go to Mike Thompson's re-election campaign, according to Mary Jane Bowker. Donations of food collected at the event will go to the charities.
Educational, religious, and charitable non-profit organizations are prohibited from donating to or participating in candidates' campaigns for political office (with some exceptions, for instance if they invite all candidates to a forum). Participating in an election fundraising event, as an organization, can cause organizations to lose their tax exempt status, 501(c)3. If that happened it would mean that individuals donating to the organizations would not be able to write off the donations as itemized deductions for income tax purposes.
Representatives of the organizations appeared to be unaware that they would be featured at a campaign event. They were under the impression that they were to receive an award from Mike Thompson acting as their Representative in Congress. There are clear legal distinctions between a Congress person's personal, official Congressional, and campaign legal duties and finances.
People are hurting due to the economic recession in the district, according to Mary Jane Bowker, the campaign's events coordinator. The campaign simply wanted to help the charities involved. The charities are the Fort Bragg Food Bank, the Gualala Food Bank, Hospitality House and the South Coast Senior Center.
Norman Wohlken, chair of the Board of Directors of the South Coast Senior Center, was aware that the Congressman's office had contacted his organization about an event. He understood that the Senior Center would be honored at an event by Mike Thompson, but he did not understand that it is an election campaign event. He was aware that tax-exempt organizations, 501(c)3's, cannot participate in political campaigns. He said he had never received a printed invitation to the event, but that the Center's administrator might have.
Nancy Severy, the administrator of the Fort Bragg Food Bank, said she had not realized that it would be a campaign event. Her organization had agreed to be "honored" in part because of the promised food donations. The dinner invitation reads "On behalf of these organizations please bring non-perishable items to be collected at the event."
The event is scheduled for Saturday, July 11, 2009 starting at 5:00 P.M. It will be held at 822 Stewart Street in Fort Bragg, California. The minimum donation for a ticket is $20, all of which goes to the Thompson campaign, but you could give Mike's campaign up to the current federal limit. Hero Sponsors, who pay $1000 for ten tickets, were listed as including Granite Construction and Ollie Edmunds. Strangely, although the flier says, "Federal Law prohibits the acceptance of corporate checks," Granite Construction says it is not only a corporation, but on the S&P 400 stock index.
The Mendocino County Annual Pasta Dinner Web page, when I researched this story on June 18, stated "Become a sponsor and a portion of your sponsorship will go to ..." followed by the names of the four charities. Ms. Bowker told me that was incorrect. She said the Web site would be edited to show that all donations would go to Mike Thompson for Congress.
Ms. Bowker seemed quite frank in her conversation with me. She said she had not asked for advice from the FEC (Federal Election Commission), IRS (Internal Revenue Service), or a campaign lawyer about including the charities in the fundraising solicitation. This is the second time they have made such an arrangement, the first time being a Yolo County event. At the event itself the organizations will be asked to sign a disclaimer saying they are not aiding in Thompson's campaign, and the disclaimer will be posted in the entrance. As of today, however, they have not signed disclaimers.
It looks like an honest mistake to me. However, as far as I can see these local charities are far more in need of donations than Mr. Thompson's re-election effort. Mike has won every one of his recent elections to Congress by a large margin, while outspending his opponents about 20 to 1.
This event should not be used to set a precedent by which religious and charitable organizations can help raise money, however obliquely, for candidates.
To give to the charities involved without having to sit through the dinner, contact them directly:
Fort Bragg Food Bank, 910 North Franklin, Fort Bragg CA 95437, 707-964-9404
Gualala Food Bank, c/o Gualala Baptist Church, Gualala, CA 95445 707-884-4330
South Coast Senior Center
The following definitions are from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service):
“Section 1.501(c)(3)-1(c)(3)(iii) of the regulations defines an “action” organization as an organization that participates or intervenes, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. The term “candidate for public office” is defined as an individual who offers himself, or is proposed by others, as a contestant for an elective public office, whether such office be national, State, or local. The regulations further provide that activities that constitute participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate include, but are not limited to, the publication or distribution of written statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to such a candidate.
“Whether an organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case.” http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/rr-07-41.pdf
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Mike Thompson is the current elected member of the United States House of Representatives for California's 1st Congressional District.