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Christian college asks for refund of donation to super PAC

Request comes after reporter's inquiry

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 Updated:

Arizona Democratic House candidate, Arizona state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

A nonprofit college says it has asked for a refund of a $5,000 donation to a conservative super PAC after an inquiry by the Center for Public Integrity.

Colorado Christian University gave the money last month to “Jan PAC,” the super PAC of Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission on Monday. The college is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meaning it is legally prohibited from making political contributions.

After being contacted by the Center on Tuesday, John Andrews, director of the university-affiliated Centennial Institute, said the payment was a bookkeeping error. Andrews said that Jan PAC promised to refund the amount within 24 hours.

This past summer, Brewer spoke at the Western Conservative Summit, hosted by the institute and the university. According to Andrews, the college wanted to thank the governor for her appearance and her representatives requested a donation to the PAC.

“It goes down as the stupidest mistake I’ve made in a while,” Andrews said.

Super PACs were made possible following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising. Super PACs are banned from coordinating their activities with federal candidates.

FEC records show Brewer's super PAC has paid for a mailing opposing Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who is running for a new U.S. House seat in the state. 

Charities run the risk of losing their exempt status if they engage in political campaign activity, according to Marcus Owens, former director of the Exempt Organizations Division at the Internal Revenue Service. More likely, though, the donation would be subject to a 10 percent excise tax.

Owens warned that other types of indirect campaign support, such as providing electronic equipment or access to mailing lists, are also prohibited.

“If it’s more pervasive, then that could conceivably trigger more significant consequences,” he says.

Located in Lakewood, Colo., the small Christian college has deep political connections. Its president, William L. Armstrong, served as a Republican congressman and U.S. Senator from 1973 to 1991.The college is also home to the Centennial Institute, a conservative public policy think tank. 

Andrews was a Republican state senator in Colorado from 1998 to 2005 where he served as senate president. He also worked for the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

On Oct. 12, Jan PAC reported spending about $23,000 on a mailer opposing Sinema, who, if elected, will be the "first openly bisexual member of Congress," according to The Advocate. The mailer calls Sinema, a lawyer and former state legislator, “wrong for America” and accuses her of putting "liberal self-interest" ahead of the public’s, according to a story in the Arizona Republic.

Sinema is running against Republican Vernon Parker in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, a new seat created thanks to the state’s population growth. It has been targeted heavily by both national parties.

Sinema has been the subject of more than $900,000 in negative ads paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Parker has been hit by more than $440,000 in negative ads paid for by Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC. Sinema has been helped by almost $700,000 in spending by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to CRP.

According to Jan PAC's newly filed documents, in addition to Colorado Christian, another educational organization, the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, also donated $5,000 during the third quarter. But as a for-profit corporation, the Apollo Group is legally allowed to make donations to super PACs.

Jan PAC did not return request for comment.

This isn’t the first time a 501(c)(3) group has made a donation blunder. Last July, pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore our Future accepted $100,000 from the Rod and Leslie Aycox Foundation. The super PAC returned the donation in February.

John Dunbar contributed to this report.