By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — The Badger State and Tinseltown are separated by some 2,000 miles, but in so many ways Wisconsin and Hollywood couldn’t be farther apart.
But in what conservatives see as the Brave New World of a left-led assault on right-bearing political speech, the home of the late-Joseph McCarthy and liberal Hollywood may have more in common than meets the eye.
In a startling piece last month, the New York Times reported that Friends of Abe, a Hollywood-based conservative group, has been stymied in its pursuit of nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service. FOA would be allowed to take in tax-deductible contributions under a tax-exempt position.
Perhaps the IRS delaying the 501(c)(3) designation of a conservative organization should come as little surprise from an agency that was found last year to have targeted scores of right-leaning groups. What may be more surprising is that, as the Times put it, “in left-leaning Hollywood, where Democratic fundraisers fill the social calendars,” a conservative organization can exist.
But Friends of Abe — as in Lincoln — is anathema in this liberal citadel, and that’s why the group maintains a very low profile and keeps its member list confidential.
The IRS, it seems, doesn’t care much for conservative confidentiality.
According to the Times piece, the IRS has been reviewing FOA’s nonprofit status applications for two years, nosing around about meetings and politician speeches. Under tax code, a 501(c)(3) is prohibited from engaging in campaign activity, but such groups can “invite candidates to speak at events,” according to the Times.
But the IRS apparently did more than simply snoop into the group’s activities. The agency at one point “included a demand — which was not met — for enhanced access to the group’s security-protected website, which would have revealed member names,” the newspaper reported. That information, tax experts say, is really none of the IRS’ business and certainly isn’t required.
“They wanted a membership list, and that is totally irrelevant,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and former member of the Federal Elections Commission.
FOA “fiercely protects its membership list, to avoid what it presumes would result in a sort of 21st century blacklist,” according to the Times article.
The conservative group has good reason to be suspicious, von Spakovsky said.
“I have a good friend who worked in Hollywood for a while and was a member of (Friends of Abe). He told me Hollywood is the worst town in the world for conservatives,” the campaign finance expert said. “People always talk about blacklisting. It is a very dangerous development. You will get blacklisted by liberals.”
Von Spakovsky calls it “reverse McCarthyism,” a nod to the 1950s when McCarthy, then a Wisconsin Republican U.S. senator, drove a furious campaign to root out communists in the State Department. At the same time in Hollywood, scores of liberal entertainers and writers were labeled communist sympathizers and black-listed.
But these days, conservatives say, it’s the left black-listing the right.
Friends of Abe officials could not be reached for comment, and representatives from the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, SAG-AFTRA, did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
The campaign to quell political speech on the right goes well beyond Hollywood, conservatives assert.
Republicans have criticized new IRS rules, proposed in November, charging they are designed to silence the free speech of interest groups.
Democrats have called for a crackdown of so-called 501(c)(4) organizations, asserting that such groups have engaged in too much political activity as “social welfare” nonprofits. The Obama administration responded, calling for restrictions on get-out-the-vote drives, voter-registration campaigns and pamphlets in support of candidates, among other activities.
A public comment period on the new rules ends later this month. The IRS is expected to hold a public hearing before it signs off on final rules.
“I want everyone in the United States who’s a taxpayer to understand and be confident that when they deal with the IRS, we will deal with them in a straightforward way,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said earlier this week during a House Ways and Means Committee.
But House Republicans charge former IRS employee Lois Lerner, who presided over an IRS division that singled out conservative groups, was included on an email in 2012 in which staffers hinted at a secret effort to rewrite the rules, according to the Washington Times.
“The email was released Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee, which said it shows Ms. Lerner’s involvement and proves that the rules were in the works for years, not a response to the scandal revealed in June. Republicans said that taints the whole process,” the stated Wednesday.
Von Spakovsky points to a report titled, “Silencing of the (Conservative) Lambs,” prepared by Cleta Mitchell , a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Foley & Lardner LLP and a member of the firm’s Political Law Practice.
The PowerPoint presentation, released in December, opens with a bold headline from the liberal Mother Jones magazine — “Revealed: The Massive New Liberal Plan to Remake American Politics.” The article published in January 2013 reports that, “A month after President Obama won (re-election), America’s most powerful liberal groups met to plan their next moves.”
“It was the kind of meeting that conspiratorial conservative bloggers dream about,” the piece gleefully insisted.
In fact, “three dozen of the most powerful groups in liberal politics met at the headquarters of the National Education Association, a few blocks north of the White House,” Mother Jones chirped. The left-centric headliners at the invite-only, off-the-record session, included the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Communication Workers of America, and the NAACP, according to the magazine.
They call it the “Democracy Initiative,” and these liberals are playing for keeps.
Attendees closed the session with a pledge “… to build a national, coordinated campaign around three goals … and pledged a total of millions of dollars and dozens of organizers to form a united front on these issues,” according to the Mother Jones piece.
- Get big money out of politics (at least conservative big money)
- Expand voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws
- Rewrite Senate filibuster rules
Liberal mission accomplished on the third goal. In November, the Senate voted 52-48 to end filibusters on executive branch and certain judicial nominees.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has attacked voter ID laws in several states. In Louisiana, the DOJ is suing the state for access to its voter data. Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler insists Holder’s action is a veiled attempt to turn the state from red to blue, saying the attorney general was acting “like the Gestapo” in requesting registration information.
Now, Von Spakovsky said, the well-organized left, lead by the right-crushing Obama administration, is going after “big money” politics with the IRS rule changes. Democrats have contended the flow of money through nonprofit organizations is a corrupting force on politics. That cry has become even louder in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, a decision that broadened the definition of money and speech in America.
Interesting that the IRS’ proposed rules do not include labor unions or trade associations and only target 501(c)(4) organizations. That’s a lot of political money left on the table for the left. Labor unions dropped some $4.4 billion in political expenditures between 2005 and 2011, according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal.
“Unfortunately, it appears that the same bureaucrats that attempted to suppress the speech of conservative groups in recent years has now put together new rules that apply to (c)4 groups but do not apply to liberal groups like labor unions,” Nick Ryan, the founder of the American Future Fund, told the New York Times.
Von Spakovsky said left-leaning public officials in local and state governments are replicating the national plan. Case in point, according to Mitchell’s report, is Wisconsin’s secret John Doe investigation. The multi-county probe, launched in August 2012 by Milwaukee County’s Democrat district attorney, is targeting dozens of conservative organizations — and apparently only conservative organizations — on allegations of illegal campaign coordination, ostensibly with Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign, during the state’s recall elections.
Conservatives have described the investigation as nothing more than a political witch hunt, a meandering probe designed as a distraction as Walker runs for re-election this year. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, noting pre-dawn raids at the homes of Wisconsin conservatives, has dubbed the investigation a “Political Speech Raid.”
Conservative sources close to the investigation have told Wisconsin Reporter they find it curious that the left is crying “illegal coordination” in Wisconsin when political coordination appears to be the guiding force of liberal groups nationwide.
President Obama in recent months has been dismissive of the IRS targeting of conservatives.
“They’ve got a list, and suddenly everybody’s outraged,” Obama said in December.
But conservative insiders who see a concerted effort on the left to stifle conservative speech say the campaign is worthy of outrage and righteous indignation.
Mitchell, the lawyer who put together the PowerPoint presentation, noted that liberals understand, as conservatives do not, the golden rule of politics: “He who writes the rules wins the gold.”
And Mitchell knows the game from the inside out. The 40-year veteran of law advises nonprofit and issue organizations, corporations, candidates, campaigns and individuals on state and federal campaign finance law, election law and compliance issues related to lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure, according to her web page.
Leaders of the Democracy Initiative say they see the movement as David v. Goliath, although the initiative appears to be well-organized and well-funded. And they seem prepared to use every tool at their disposal, including the awesome power of the presidency, to knock out their political opponent.
“The game is rigged against us; the corporate right has done such a good job taking over the Congress and the courts,” Greenpeace’s Phil Radford told Mother Jones. “We’re saying we need to step back and change the whole game.”
Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]