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The limits of charity

Governor Bill Richardson is taking advantage of a regulatory gray area to get out the vote

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New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, chairman of this year's Democratic National Convention, has been operating a virtually invisible network of nonprofit organizations engaged in get-out-the-vote operations in Hispanic and American Indian communities in five battleground states.

The first-term governor, who served in Congress and then in the Cabinet of President Bill Clinton, founded both a public educational charity called the Moving America Forward Foundation and a political action committee called Moving America Forward—a dual-pronged strategy that, while perfectly legal, operates partly in an unregulated gray area, according to University of Miami law professor Frances Hill. “The problem,” says Hill, an acknowledged expert on political nonprofits, is “when social welfare organizations become redesigned into crypto-political committees”—that is, when they stray from their nonpartisan mandates.

Richardson began accepting contributions to Moving America Forward in mid-2002. Since then the PAC has raised at least $2.9 million, according to disclosure forms analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity—funds that were used to train political organizers, encourage (at “Camp Richardson”) grassroots participation in campaigns, pay salaries and fees for field staff and consultants, and even defray expenses for one of this year’s Democratic primary debates. Nearly 52 percent of that $2.9 million came from organized labor. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was the largest contributor to the PAC, with more than $1 million.

Conversely, Richardson’s Moving America Forward Foundation, which has been operating since October 2003, has disclosed no financial details—whether about its donors or expenditures—and will not be legally required to do so until after this year’s elections.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in a photo taken while he served as the Secretary of Energy. (photo: DOE) Richardson’s charitable foundation, which was organized under Section 501©(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, operates exclusively in Arizona and Nevada, while his state PAC operates only in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico—three more battleground states whose Hispanic and American Indian populations could also play decisive roles in the upcoming presidential election.

According to Amanda Cooper, executive director of Moving America Forward, a majority of the work in Arizona and Nevada consists of nonpartisan voter education activity in Native American communities, hence the decision to use a charity in those states. When asked why the charity did not also maintain staff in Alaska or the Dakotas, Cooper explained that Moving America Forward is mainly active in the West, but that they do conduct trainings in Alaska and the Dakotas. She also expressed a desire not to step on the toes of other charities.

The foundation and the PAC, Cooper said, have collectively registered almost 150,000 voters from these two minority groups in the five targeted states.

Corporate registrations filed in each state list separate officers for the two organizations but sometimes give the same mailing address in Santa Fe. And similar press releases issued in Arizona and Colorado suggest some level of strategic coordination between the two.

Cooper told the Center that Richardson is not involved in the operations of the foundation. What’s more, she emphasized, the foundation and the PAC operate independently of each other. He created these two organizations, she added, because he “worried that Hispanic and American Indians were not fully realizing their voice.”

“In the early 1980s we used to do lots of voter registration, but since then people have been slowly dropping off the rolls,” Cooper said. The media-oriented campaigns of recent years are very powerful, she noted, but they don’t effectively get people to the polls. Moving America Forward was designed to counteract that trend.

And Richardson, the nation’s only Hispanic governor, has another goal for his politicking, as articulated during the 2003 conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials: “The objective,” he told reporters, “is going to be to win back the White House and to increase our numbers in the Senate,” according to the Albuquerque Journal.

At issue is whether the activities of the foundation are philanthropic or partisan in nature. As the Internal Revenue Code states, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are “absolutely prohibited” from engaging in partisan election activities. “It’s a fascinating area where sorting out relationships with politicians calls for some careful thought,” says Professor Hill, “because you don’t want them [charities] to be conduits around campaign finance law.”

Hill told the Center that having charities actively involved in conducting voter registration and education drives is good government activity, but picking states for their electoral impact may raise questions. “Politicians, like everyone else, can create and organize and found 501©(3) organizations, provided that they’re for 501(c)(3) purposes,” she said. “The problem is when they redesign them into political campaign vehicles.” Cooper maintains that Arizona and Nevada were not picked for their electoral impact.