Thursday, December 5, 2013
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
The Green Bay Press Gazette reports that a review of 51 active or recently closed charities tied to Wisconsin athletes and professional teams revealed a mix of compliance and noncompliance with IRS filing requirements, a broad range of fundraising costs and revenues, and other issues. For example, six of the charities have lost their tax-exempt status for failing to file the required annual return (Form 990) and several charities reported less than two-thirds of revenues going toward charitable activities (as low as 18 percent in one case), although in some cases that low percentage may reflect an intentional plan to build up reserves for a particular, future charitable purpose. The charities ranged in size from several with over a million dollars in annual revenue to 16 active charities with less than $50,000 in annual revenue. As noted in the story and detailed in separate USA Today report, the most prominent set of concerns may belong to the LeRoy Butler Foundation, which is currently the subejct of an IRS and federal grand jury investigation apparently stemming from its multi-year failure to file IRS returns and payments of "appearance fees" and provision of other benefits to its namesake. Overall, these reports appear to reveal a broad range of typical charity successes and failures among this subset of charities.
Friday, November 29, 2013
I'll admit it: I've been closely following the release of the proposed new Treasury regulations governing political advocacy of 501(c)(4) organizations. Today's Washington Post asserts that the new rules bring both clarity and confusion to a broken system. The Post's article begins by acknowleding that the rules governing the political activities of nonprofit advocacy groups is "an area of the tax code that has been crying out for greater clarity." According to the newspaper, while the "proposed regulation unvieled Tuesday by the Treasury Department draws the boundaries clearly," they "instantly kicked off intense debate about whether the lines are in the right place."
According to the Post,
One phrase in the official notice summed up the imperfect nature of the exercise. The new rules, the department said, "may be both more restrictive and more permissive than the current approach."
Notwithstanding the apparent confusion, the Post acknowledges what we all know: the system was broken and needed to be fixed.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Notices of Proposed Rulemaking, Proposed Amendments of Regulations (REG-134417-13), NPRM REG-134417-13, Internal Revenue Service, (Nov. 29, 2013)
Proposed Amendments of Regulations (REG-134417-13), published in the Federal Register on November 29, 2013.
[Code Sec 501]
Tax-exempt organizations: Social welfare organizations: Qualifications: Candidate-related political activity.–
Amendments of Reg. 1.501(c)(4)-1, providing guidance to tax-exempt social welfare organizations on political activities related to candidates that will not be considered to promote social welfare, are proposed. The text is at ¶22,610B.
AGENCY: Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Treasury.
ACTION: Notice of proposed rulemaking.
SUMMARY: This document contains proposed regulations that provide guidance to tax-exempt social welfare organizations on political activities related to candidates that will not be considered to promote social welfare. These regulations will affect tax-exempt social welfare organizations and organizations seeking such status. This document requests comments from the public regarding these proposed regulations. This document also requests comments from the public regarding the standard under current regulations that considers a tax-exempt social welfare organization to be operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare if it is “primarily” engaged in activities that promote the common good and general welfare of the people of the community, including how this standard should be measured and whether this standard should be changed.
DATES: Written or electronic comments and requests for a public hearing must be received by [INSERT DATE 90 DAYS AFTER PUBLICATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IN THE FEDERAL REGISTER].
ADDRESSES: Send submissions to: CC:PA:LPD:PR (REG-134417-13), Room 5205, Internal Revenue Service, P.O. Box 7604, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, DC 20044. Submissions may be hand-delivered Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to CC:PA:LPD:PR (REG-134417-13), Courier's Desk, Internal Revenue Service, 1111 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC, or sent electronically via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov (IRS REG-134417-13).
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Concerning the proposed regulations, Amy F. Giuliano at (202) 317-5800; concerning submission of comments and requests for a public hearing, Oluwafunmilayo Taylor at (202) 317-6901 (not toll-free numbers).
Paperwork Reduction Act
The collection of information contained in this notice of proposed rulemaking has been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review in accordance with the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (44 U.S.C. 3507(d)). Comments on the collection of information should be sent to the Office of Management and Budget, Attn: Desk Officer for the Department of the Treasury, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Washington, DC 20503, with copies to the Internal Revenue Service, Attn: IRS Reports Clearance Officer, SE:W:CAR:MP:T:T:SP, Washington, DC 20224. Comments on the collection of information should be received by [INSERT DATE 60 DAYS AFTER PUBLICATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IN THE FEDERAL REGISTER].
Comments are specifically requested concerning:
Whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the IRS, including whether the information will have practical utility;
The accuracy of the estimated burden associated with the proposed collection of information;
How the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected may be enhanced; and
How the burden of complying with the proposed collection of information may be minimized, including through forms of information technology.
The collection of information in these proposed regulations is in §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(iii)(D), which provides a special rule for contributions by an organization described in section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) to an organization described in section 501(c). Generally, a contribution by a section 501(c)(4) organization to a section 501(c) organization that engages in candidate-related political activity will be considered candidate-related political activity by the section 501(c)(4) organization. The special rule in §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(iii)(D) provides that a contribution to a section 501(c) organization will not be treated as a contribution to an organization engaged in candidate-related political activity if the contributor organization obtains a written representation from an authorized officer of the recipient organization stating that the recipient organization does not engage in any such activity and the contribution is subject to a written restriction that it not be used for candidate-related political activity. This special provision would not apply if the contributor organization knows or has reason to know that the representation is inaccurate or unreliable. The expected recordkeepers are section 501(c)(4) organizations that choose to contribute to, and to seek a written representation from, a section 501(c) organization.
Estimated number of recordkeepers: 2,000.
Estimated average annual burden hours per recordkeeper: 2 hours.
Estimated total annual recordkeeping burden: 4,000 hours.
A particular section 501(c)(4) organization may require more or less time, depending on the number of contributions for which a representation is sought.
An agency may not conduct or sponsor, and a person is not required to respond to, a collection of information unless it displays a valid control number assigned by the Office of Management and Budget.
Books or records relating to a collection of information must be retained as long as their contents may become material in the administration of any internal revenue law. Generally, tax returns and return information are confidential, as required by section 6103.
Section 501(c)(4) of the Code provides a Federal income tax exemption, in part, for “[c]ivic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” This exemption dates back to the enactment of the federal income tax in 1913. See Tariff Act of 1913, 38 Stat. 114 (1913). The statutory provision was largely unchanged until 1996, when section 501(c)(4) was amended to prohibit inurement of an organization's net earnings to private shareholders or individuals.
Prior to 1924, the accompanying Treasury regulations did not elaborate on the meaning of “promotion of social welfare.” See Regulations 33 (Rev.), art. 67 (1918). Treasury regulations promulgated in 1924 explained that civic leagues qualifying for exemption under section 231(8) of the Revenue Act of 1924, the predecessor to section 501(c)(4) of the 1986 Code, are “those not organized for profit but operated exclusively for purposes beneficial to the community as a whole,” and generally include “organizations engaged in promoting the welfare of mankind, other than organizations comprehended within [section 231(6) of the Revenue Act of 1924, the predecessor to section 501(c)(3) of the 1986 Code].” See Regulations 65, art. 519 (1924). The regulations remained substantially the same until 1959.
The current regulations under section 501(c)(4) were proposed and finalized in 1959. They provide that “[a]n organization is operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(i). An organization “embraced” within section 501(c)(4) is one that is “operated primarily for the purpose of bringing about civic betterments and social improvements.” Id. The regulations further provide that “[t]he promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(ii). This language is similar to language that appears in section 501(c)(3) requiring section 501(c)(3) organizations not to “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office” (“political campaign intervention”). However, unlike the absolute prohibition that applies to charitable organizations described in section 501(c)(3), an organization that primarily engages in activities that promote social welfare will be considered under the current regulations to be operating exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, and may qualify for taxexempt status under section 501(c)(4), even though it engages in some political campaign intervention.
The section 501(c)(4) regulations have not been amended since 1959, although Congress took steps in the intervening years to address further the relationship of political campaign activities to tax-exempt status. In particular, section 527, which governs the tax treatment of political organizations, was enacted in 1975 and provides generally that amounts received as contributions and other funds raised for political purposes (section 527 exempt function income) are not subject to tax. Section 527(e)(1) defines a “political organization” as “a party, committee, association, fund, or other organization (whether or not incorporated) organized and operated primarily for the purpose of directly or indirectly accepting contributions or making expenditures, or both, for an exempt function.” Section 527(f) also imposes a tax on exempt organizations described in section 501(c), including section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, that make an expenditure furthering a section 527 exempt function. The tax is imposed on the lesser of the organization's net investment income or section 527 exempt function expenditures. Section 527(e)(2) defines “exempt function” as “the function of influencing or attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any individual to any federal, state, or local public office or office in a political organization, or the election of Presidential or Vice-Presidential electors” (referred to in this document as “section 527 exempt function”). 1
Unlike the section 501(c)(3) standard of political campaign intervention, and the similar standard currently applied under section 501(c)(4), both of which focus solely on candidates for elective public office, a section 527 exempt function encompasses activities related to a broader range of officials, including those who are appointed or nominated, such as executive branch officials and certain judges. Thus, while there is currently significant overlap in the activities that constitute political campaign intervention under sections 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) and those that further a section 527 exempt function, the concepts are not synonymous.
Over the years, the IRS has stated that whether an organization is engaged in political campaign intervention depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. See Rev. Rul. 78-248 (1978-1 CB 154) (illustrating application of the facts and circumstances analysis to voter education activities conducted by section 501(c)(3) organizations); Rev. Rul. 80-282 (1980-2 CB 178) (amplifying Rev. Rul. 78-248 regarding the timing and distribution of voter education materials); Rev. Rul. 86-95 (1986-2 CB 73) (holding a public forum for the purpose of educating and informing the voters, which provides fair and impartial treatment of candidates, and which does not promote or advance one candidate over another, does not constitute political campaign intervention under section 501(c)(3)). More recently, the IRS released Rev. Rul. 2007-41 (2007-1 CB 1421), providing 21 examples illustrating facts and circumstances to be considered in determining whether a section 501(c)(3) organization's activities (including voter education, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives; individual activity by organization leaders; candidate appearances; business activities; and Web sites) result in political campaign intervention. The IRS generally applies the same facts and circumstances analysis under section 501(c)(4). See Rev. Rul. 81-95 (1981-1 CB 332) (citing revenue rulings under section 501(c)(3) for examples of what constitutes participation or intervention in political campaigns for purposes of section 501(c)(4)).
Similarly, Rev. Rul. 2004-6 (2004-1 CB 328) provides six examples illustrating facts and circumstances to be considered in determining whether a section 501(c) organization (such as a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization) that engages in public policy advocacy has expended funds for a section 527 exempt function. The analysis reflected in these revenue rulings for determining whether an organization has engaged in political campaign intervention, or has expended funds for a section 527 exempt function, is factintensive.
Recently, increased attention has been focused on potential political campaign intervention by section 501(c)(4) organizations. A recent IRS report relating to IRS review of applications for tax-exempt status states that “[o]ne of the significant challenges with the 501(c)(4) [application] review process has been the lack of a clear and concise definition of ‘political campaign intervention.’” Internal Revenue Service, “Charting a Path Forward at the IRS: Initial Assessment and Plan of Action” at 20 (June 24, 2013). In addition, “[t]he distinction between campaign intervention and social welfare activity, and the measurement of the organization's social welfare activities relative to its total activities, have created considerable confusion for both the public and the IRS in making appropriate section 501(c)(4) determinations.” Id. at 28. The Treasury Department and the IRS recognize that both the public and the IRS would benefit from clearer definitions of these concepts.
Explanation of Provisions
The Treasury Department and the IRS recognize that more definitive rules with respect to political activities related to candidates - rather than the existing, fact-intensive analysis - would be helpful in applying the rules regarding qualification for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4). Although more definitive rules might fail to capture (or might sweep in) activities that would (or would not) be captured under the IRS' traditional facts and circumstances approach, adopting rules with sharper distinctions in this area would provide greater certainty and reduce the need for detailed factual analysis in determining whether an organization is described in section 501(c)(4). Accordingly, the Treasury Department and the IRS propose to amend Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2) to identify specific political activities that would be considered candidaterelated political activities that do not promote social welfare.
To distinguish the proposed rules under section 501(c)(4) from the section 501(c)(3) standard and the similar standard currently applied under section 501(c)(4), the proposed regulations would amend Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(ii) to delete the current reference to “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office,” which is similar to language in the section 501(c)(3) statute and regulations. Instead the proposed regulations would revise Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(ii) to state that “[t]he promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect candidate-related political activity.” As explained in more detail in section 2 of this preamble, the proposed rules draw upon existing definitions of political campaign activity, both in the Code and in federal election law, to define candidate-related political activity that would not be considered to promote social welfare. The proposed rules draw in particular from certain statutory provisions of section 527, which specifically deals with political organizations and taxes section 501(c) organizations, including section 501(c)(4) organizations, on certain types of political campaign activities. Recognizing that it may be beneficial to have a more uniform set of rules relating to political campaign activity for tax-exempt organizations, the Treasury Department and the IRS request comments in subparagraphs a through c of this section of the preamble regarding whether the same or a similar approach should be adopted in addressing political campaign activities of other section 501(c) organizations, as well as whether the regulations under section 527 should be revised to adopt the same or a similar approach in defining section 527 exempt function activity.
a. Interaction with section 501(c)(3)
These proposed regulations do not address the definition of political campaign intervention under section 501(c)(3). The Treasury Department and the IRS recognize that, because such intervention is absolutely prohibited under section 501(c)(3), a more nuanced consideration of the totality of facts and circumstances may be appropriate in that context. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on the advisability of adopting an approach to defining political campaign intervention under section 501(c)(3) similar to the approach set forth in these regulations, either in lieu of the facts and circumstances approach reflected in Rev. Rul. 2007-41 or in addition to that approach (for example, by creating a clearly defined presumption or safe harbor). The Treasury Department and the IRS also request comments on whether any modifications or exceptions would be needed in the section 501(c)(3) context and, if so, how to ensure that any such modifications or exceptions are clearly defined and administrable. Any such change would be introduced in the form of proposed regulations to allow an additional opportunity for public comment.
b. Interaction with section 527
As noted in the “Background” section of this preamble, a section 501(c)(4) organization is subject to tax under section 527(f) if it makes expenditures for a section 527 exempt function. Consistent with section 527, the proposed regulations provide that “candidate-related political activity” for purposes of section 501(c)(4) includes activities relating to selection, nomination, election, or appointment of individuals to serve as public officials, officers in a political organization, or Presidential or Vice Presidential electors. These proposed regulations do not, however, address the definition of “exempt function” activity under section 527 or the application of section 527(f). The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on the advisability of adopting rules that are the same as or similar to these proposed regulations for purposes of defining section 527 exempt function activity in lieu of the facts and circumstances approach reflected in Rev. Rul. 2004-6. Any such change would be introduced in the form of proposed regulations to allow an additional opportunity for public comment.
c. Interaction with sections 501(c)(5) and 501(c)(6)
The proposed regulations define candidate-related political activity for social welfare organizations described in section 501(c)(4). The Treasury Department and the IRS are considering whether to amend the current regulations under sections 501(c)(5) and 501(c)(6) to provide that exempt purposes under those regulations (which include “the betterment of the conditions of those engaged in [labor, agricultural, or horticultural] pursuits” in the case of a section 501(c)(5) organization and promoting a “common business interest” in the case of a section 501(c)(6) organization) do not include candidaterelated political activity as defined in these proposed regulations. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on the advisability of adopting this approach in defining activities that do not further exempt purposes under sections 501(c)(5) and 501(c)(6). Any such change would be introduced in the form of proposed regulations to allow an additional opportunity for public comment.
d. Additional guidance on the meaning of “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare”
The Treasury Department and the IRS have received requests for guidance on the meaning of “primarily” as used in the current regulations under section 501(c)(4). The current regulations provide, in part, that an organization is operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare within the meaning of section 501(c)(4) if it is “primarily engaged” in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community. Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(i). As part of the same 1959 Treasury decision promulgating the current section 501(c)(4) regulations, regulations under section 501(c)(3) were adopted containing similar language: “[a]n organization will be regarded as ‘operated exclusively’ for one or more exempt purposes only if it engages primarily in activities which accomplish one or more of such exempt purposes specified in section 501(c)(3).” Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(3)-1(c)(1). Unlike the section 501(c)(4) regulations, however, the section 501(c)(3) regulations also provide that “[a]n organization will not be so regarded if more than an insubstantial part of its activities is not in furtherance of an exempt purpose.” Id.
Some have questioned the use of the “primarily” standard in the section 501(c)(4) regulations and suggested that this standard should be changed. The Treasury Department and the IRS are considering whether the current section 501(c)(4) regulations should be modified in this regard and, if the “primarily” standard is retained, whether the standard should be defined with more precision or revised to mirror the standard under the section 501(c)(3) regulations. Given the potential impact on organizations currently recognized as described in section 501(c)(4) of any change in the “primarily” standard, the Treasury Department and the IRS wish to receive comments from a broad range of organizations before deciding how to proceed. Accordingly, the Treasury Department and the IRS invite comments from the public on what proportion of an organization's activities must promote social welfare for an organization to qualify under section 501(c)(4) and whether additional limits should be imposed on any or all activities that do not further social welfare. The Treasury Department and the IRS also request comments on how to measure the activities of organizations seeking to qualify as section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations for these purposes.
2. Definition of Candidate-Related Political Activity
These proposed regulations provide guidance on which activities will be considered candidate-related political activity for purposes of the regulations under section 501(c)(4). These proposed regulations would replace the language in the existing final regulation under section 501(c)(4) - “participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office” - with a new term - “candidate-related political activity” - to differentiate the proposed section 501(c)(4) rule from the standard employed under section 501(c)(3) (and currently employed under section 501(c)(4)). The proposed rule is intended to help organizations and the IRS more readily identify activities that constitute candidate-related political activity and, therefore, do not promote social welfare within the meaning of section 501(c)(4). These proposed regulations do not otherwise define the promotion of social welfare under section 501(c)(4). The Treasury Department and the IRS note that the fact that an activity is not candidate-related political activity under these proposed regulations does not mean that the activity promotes social welfare. Whether such an activity promotes social welfare is an independent determination.
In defining candidate-related political activity for purposes of section 501(c)(4), these proposed regulations draw key concepts from the federal election campaign laws, with appropriate modifications reflecting the purpose of these regulations to define which organizations may receive the benefits of section 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status and to promote tax compliance (as opposed to campaign finance regulation). In addition, the concepts drawn from the federal election campaign laws have been modified to reflect that section 501(c)(4) organizations may be involved in activities related to local or state elections (in addition to federal elections), as well as the broader scope of the proposed definition of candidate (which is not limited to candidates for federal elective office).
The proposed regulations provide that candidate-related political activity includes activities that the IRS has traditionally considered to be political campaign activity per se , such as contributions to candidates and communications that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. The proposed regulations also would treat as candidate-related political activity certain activities that, because they occur close in time to an election or are election-related, have a greater potential to affect the outcome of an election. Currently, such activities are subject to a facts and circumstances analysis before a determination can be made as to whether the activity furthers social welfare within the meaning of section 501(c)(4). Under the approach in these proposed regulations, such activities instead would be subject to a more definitive rule. In addition, consistent with the goal of providing greater clarity, the proposed regulations would identify certain specific activities as candidate-related political activity. The Treasury Department and the IRS acknowledge that the approach taken in these proposed regulations, while clearer, may be both more restrictive and more permissive than the current approach, but believe the proposed approach is justified by the need to provide greater certainty to section 501(c)(4) organizations regarding their activities and reduce the need for fact-intensive determinations.
The Treasury Department and the IRS note that a particular activity may fit within one or more categories of candidate-related political activity described in subsections b through e of this section 2 of the preamble; the categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, the category of express advocacy communications may overlap with the category of certain communications close in time to an election.
a. Definition of “candidate”
These proposed regulations provide that, consistent with the scope of section 527, “candidate” means an individual who identifies himself or is proposed by another for selection, nomination, election, or appointment to any public office or office in a political organization, or to be a Presidential or Vice-Presidential elector, whether or not the individual is ultimately selected, nominated, elected, or appointed. In addition, the proposed regulations clarify that for these purposes the term “candidate” also includes any officeholder who is the subject of a recall election. The Treasury Department and the IRS note that defining “candidate-related political activity” in these proposed regulations to include activities related to candidates for a broader range of offices (such as activities relating to the appointment or confirmation of executive branch officials and judicial nominees) is a change from the historical application in the section 501(c)(4) context of the section 501(c)(3) standard of political campaign intervention, which focuses on candidates for elective public office only. See Treas. Reg. §1.501(c)(3)-1(c)(3)(iii). These proposed regulations instead would apply a definition that reflects the broader scope of section 527 and that is already applied to a section 501(c)(4) organization engaged in section 527 exempt function activity through section 527(f).
b. Express advocacy communications
These proposed regulations provide that candidate-related political activity includes communications that expressly advocate for or against a candidate. These proposed regulations draw from Federal Election Commission rules in defining “expressly advocate,” but expand the concept to include communications expressing a view on the selection, nomination, or appointment of individuals, or on the election or defeat of one or more candidates or of candidates of a political party. These proposed regulations make clear that all communications - including written, printed, electronic (including Internet), video, and oral communications - that express a view, whether for or against, on a clearly identified candidate (or on candidates of a political party) would constitute candidate-related political activity. A candidate can be “clearly identified” in a communication by name, photograph, or reference (such as “the incumbent” or a reference to a particular issue or characteristic distinguishing the candidate from others). The proposed regulations also provide that candidate-related political activity includes any express advocacy communication the expenditures for which an organization reports to the Federal Election Commission under the Federal Election Campaign Act as an independent expenditure.
c. Public communications close in time to an election
Under current guidance, the timing of a communication about a candidate that is made shortly before an election is a factor tending to indicate a greater risk of political campaign intervention or section 527 exempt function activity. In the interest of greater clarity, these proposed regulations would move away from the facts and circumstances approach that the IRS has traditionally applied in analyzing certain activities conducted close in time to an election. These proposed regulations draw from provisions of federal election campaign laws that treat certain communications that are close in time to an election and that refer to a clearly identified candidate as electioneering communications, but make certain modifications. The proposed regulations expand the types of candidates and communications that are covered to reflect the types of activities an organization might conduct related to local and state, as well as federal, contests, including any election or ballot measure to recall an individual who holds state or local elective public office. In addition, the expansion of the types of communications covered in the proposed regulations reflects the fact that an organization's tax exempt status is determined based on all of its activities, even low cost and volunteer activities, not just its large expenditures.
Under the proposed definition, any public communication that is made within 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary election and that clearly identifies a candidate for public office (or, in the case of a general election, refers to a political party represented in that election) would be considered candidate-related political activity. These timeframes are the same as those appearing in the Federal Election Campaign Act definition of electioneering communications. The definition of “election,” including what would be treated as a primary or a general election, is consistent with section 527(j) and the federal election campaign laws.
A communication is “public” if it is made using certain mass media (specifically, by broadcast, in a newspaper, or on the Internet), constitutes paid advertising, or reaches or is intended to reach at least 500 people (including mass mailings or telephone banks). The Treasury Department and the IRS intend that content previously posted by an organization on its Web site that clearly identifies a candidate and remains on the Web site during the specified pre-election period would be treated as candidate-related political activity.
The proposed regulations also provide that candidate-related political activity includes any communication the expenditures for which an organization reports to the Federal Election Commission under the Federal Election Campaign Act, including electioneering communications.
The approach taken in the proposed definition of candidate-related political activity would avoid the need to consider potential mitigating or aggravating circumstances in particular cases (such as whether an issueoriented communication is “neutral” or “biased” with respect to a candidate). Thus, this definition would apply without regard to whether a public communication is intended to influence the election or some other, non-electoral action (such as a vote on pending legislation) and without regard to whether such communication was part of a series of similar communications. Moreover, a public communication made outside the 60-day or 30-day period would not be candidate-related political activity if it does not fall within the ambit of express advocacy communications or another specific provision of the definition. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether the length of the period should be longer (or shorter) and whether there are particular communications that (regardless of timing) should be excluded from the definition because they can be presumed to neither influence nor constitute an attempt to influence the outcome of an election. Any comments should specifically address how the proposed exclusion is consistent with the goal of providing clear rules that avoid fact-intensive determinations.
The Treasury Department and the IRS also note that this rule regarding public communications close in time to an election would not apply to public communications identifying a candidate for a state or federal appointive office that are made within a specified number of days before a scheduled appointment, confirmation hearing or vote, or other selection event. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether a similar rule should apply with respect to communications within a specified period of time before such a scheduled appointment, confirmation hearing or vote, or other selection event.
d. Contributions to a candidate, political organization, or any section 501(c) entity engaged in candidate-related political activity
The proposed definition of candidate-related political activity would include contributions of money or anything of value to or the solicitation of contributions on behalf of (1) any person if such contribution is recognized under applicable federal, state, or local campaign finance law as a reportable contribution; (2) any political party, political committee, or other section 527 organization; or (3) any organization described in section 501(c) that engages in candidate-related political activity within the meaning of this proposed rule. This definition of contribution is similar to the definition of contribution that applies for purposes of section 527. The Treasury Department and the IRS intend that the term “anything of value” would include both in-kind donations and other support (for example, volunteer hours and free or discounted rentals of facilities or mailing lists). The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether other transfers, such as indirect contributions described in section 276 to political parties or political candidates, should be treated as candidate-related political activity.
The Treasury Department and the IRS recognize that a section 501(c)(4) organization making a contribution may not know whether a recipient section 501(c) organization engages in candidate-related political activity. The proposed regulations provide that, for purposes of this definition, a recipient organization would not be treated as a section 501(c) organization engaged in candidaterelated political activity if the contributor organization obtains a written representation from an authorized officer of the recipient organization stating that the recipient organization does not engage in any such activity and the contribution is subject to a written restriction that it not be used for candidaterelated political activity. This special provision would apply only if the contributor organization does not know or have reason to know that the representation is inaccurate or unreliable.
e. Election-related activities
The proposed definition of candidate-related political activity would include certain specified election-related activities, including the conduct of voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, distribution of material prepared by or on behalf of a candidate or section 527 organization, and preparation or distribution of a voter guide and accompanying material that refers to a candidate or a political party. In addition, an organization that hosts an event on its premises or conducts an event off-site within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election at which one or more candidates in such election appear as part of the program (whether or not such appearance was previously scheduled) would be engaged in candidate-related political activity under the proposed definition.
The Treasury Department and the IRS acknowledge that under the facts and circumstances analysis currently used for section 501(c)(4) organizations as well as for section 501(c)(3) organizations, these election-related activities may not be considered political campaign intervention if conducted in a non-partisan and unbiased manner. However, these determinations are highly fact-intensive. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether any particular activities conducted by section 501(c)(4) organizations should be excepted from the definition of candidate-related political activity as voter education activity and, if so, a description of how the proposed exception will both ensure that excepted activities are conducted in a non-partisan and unbiased manner and avoid a fact-intensive analysis.
f. Attribution to a section 501(c)(4) organization of certain activities and communications
These proposed regulations provide that activities conducted by an organization include, but are not limited to, (1) activities paid for by the organization or conducted by the organization's officers, directors, or employees acting in that capacity, or by volunteers acting under the organization's direction or supervision; (2) communications made (whether or not such communications were previously scheduled) as part of the program at an official function of the organization or in an official publication of the organization; and (3) other communications (such as television advertisements) the creation or distribution of which is paid for by the organization. These proposed regulations also provide that an organization's Web site is an official publication of the organization, so that material posted by the organization on its Web site may constitute candidate-related political activity. The proposed regulations do not specifically address material posted by third parties on an organization's Web site. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether, and under what circumstances, material posted by a third party on an interactive part of the organization's Web site should be attributed to the organization for purposes of this rule. In addition, the Treasury Department and the IRS have stated in guidance under section 501(c)(3) regarding political campaign intervention that when a charitable organization chooses to establish a link to another Web site, the organization is responsible for the consequences of establishing and maintaining that link, even if it does not have control over the content of the linked site. See Rev. Rul. 2007-41. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether the consequences of establishing and maintaining a link to another Web site should be the same or different for purposes of the proposed definition of candidate-related political activity.
Proposed Effective/Applicability Date
These regulations are proposed to be effective the date of publication of the Treasury decision adopting these rules as final regulations in the Federal Register. For proposed date of applicability, see §1.501(c)(4)-1(c).
Statement of Availability for IRS Documents
For copies of recently issued Revenue Procedures, Revenue Rulings, Notices, and other guidance published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin or Cumulative Bulletin, please visit the IRS Web site at http://www.irs.gov or the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.
It has been determined that this notice of proposed rulemaking is not a significant regulatory action as defined in Executive Order 12866, as supplemented by Executive Order 13563. Therefore, a regulatory assessment is not required. It also has been determined that section 553(b) of the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C. chapter 5) does not apply to these regulations. It is hereby certified that this rule will not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. This certification is based on the fact that only a minimal burden would be imposed by the rule, if adopted. Under the proposal, if a section 501(c)(4) organization chooses to contribute to a section 501(c) organization and wants assurance that the contribution will not be treated as candidate-related political activity, it may seek a written representation that the recipient does not engage in candidate-related political activity within the meaning of these regulations. Therefore, a regulatory flexibility analysis under the Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. chapter 6) is not required. Pursuant to section 7805(f) of the Code, this notice of proposed rulemaking has been submitted to the Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the Small Business Administration for comment on its impact on small business.
Comments and Requests for Public Hearing
Before these proposed regulations are adopted as final regulations, consideration will be given to any written comments (a signed original and eight (8) copies) or electronic comments that are submitted timely to the IRS. The Treasury Department and the IRS generally request comments on all aspects of the proposed rules. In particular, the Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on whether there are other specific activities that should be included in, or excepted from, the definition of candidate-related political activity for purposes of section 501(c)(4). Such comments should address how the proposed addition or exception is consistent with the goals of providing more definitive rules and reducing the need for fact-intensive analysis of the activity. All comments submitted by the public will be made available for public inspection and copying at www.regulations.gov or upon request.
A public hearing will be scheduled if requested in writing by any person who timely submits written comments. If a public hearing is scheduled, notice of the date, time, and place for the public hearing will be published in the Federal Register.
The principal author of these regulations is Amy F. Giuliano, Office of Associate Chief Counsel (Tax Exempt and Government Entities). However, other personnel from the IRS and Treasury Department participated in their development.
List of Subjects in 26 CFR Part 1
Income taxes, Reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
Proposed Amendments to the Regulations
Accordingly, 26 CFR part 1 is proposed to be amended as follows:
PART 1—INCOME TAXES
Paragraph 1. The authority citation for part 1 continues to read in part as follows:
Authority: 26 U.S.C. 7805 * * *
Par. 2. Section 1.501(c)(4)-1 is proposed to be amended by revising the first sentence of paragraph (a)(2)(ii) and adding paragraphs (a)(2)(iii) and (c) to read as follows:
§1.501(c)(4)-1 Civic organizations and local associations of employees.
(a) * * *
(2) * * *
(ii) * * * The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect candidate-related political activity, as defined in paragraph (a)(2)(iii) of this section. * * *
(iii) Definition of candidate-related political activity—(A) In general. For purposes of this section, candidate-related political activity means:
( 1) Any communication (as defined in paragraph (a)(2)(iii)(B)( 3) of this section) expressing a view on, whether for or against, the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of one or more clearly identified candidates or of candidates of a political party that—
( i) Contains words that expressly advocate, such as “vote,” “oppose,” “support,” “elect,” “defeat,” or “reject;” or
( ii) Is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than a call for or against the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of one or more candidates or of candidates of a political party;
( 2) Any public communication (defined in paragraph (a)(2)(iii)(B)( 5) of this section) within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election that refers to one or more clearly identified candidates in that election or, in the case of a general election, refers to one or more political parties represented in that election;
( 3) Any communication the expenditures for which are reported to the Federal Election Commission, including independent expenditures and electioneering communications;
( 4) A contribution (including a gift, grant, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit) of money or anything of value to or the solicitation of contributions on behalf of—
( i) Any person, if the transfer is recognized under applicable federal, state, or local campaign finance law as a reportable contribution to a candidate for elective office;
( ii) Any section 527 organization; or
( iii) Any organization described in section 501(c) that engages in candidate-related political activity within the meaning of this paragraph (a)(2)(iii) (see special rule in paragraph (a)(2)(iii)(D) of this section);
( 5) Conduct of a voter registration drive or “get-out-the-vote” drive;
( 6) Distribution of any material prepared by or on behalf of a candidate or by a section 527 organization including, without limitation, written materials, and audio and video recordings;
( 7) Preparation or distribution of a voter guide that refers to one or more clearly identified candidates or, in the case of a general election, to one or more political parties (including material accompanying the voter guide); or
( 8) Hosting or conducting an event within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election at which one or more candidates in such election appear as part of the program.
(B) Related definitions. The following terms are defined for purposes of this paragraph (a)(2)(iii) only:
( 1) “ Candidate” means an individual who publicly offers himself, or is proposed by another, for selection, nomination, election, or appointment to any federal, state, or local public office or office in a political organization, or to be a Presidential or Vice-Presidential elector, whether or not such individual is ultimately selected, nominated, elected, or appointed. Any officeholder who is the subject of a recall election shall be treated as a candidate in the recall election.
( 2) “ Clearly identified” means the name of the candidate involved appears, a photograph or drawing of the candidate appears, or the identity of the candidate is apparent by reference, such as by use of the candidate's recorded voice or of terms such as “the Mayor,” “your Congressman,” “the incumbent,” “the Democratic nominee,” or “the Republican candidate for County Supervisor.” In addition, a candidate may be “clearly identified” by reference to an issue or characteristic used to distinguish the candidate from other candidates.
( 3) “ Communication” means any communication by whatever means, including written, printed, electronic (including Internet), video, or oral communications.
( 4) “ Election” means a general, special, primary, or runoff election for federal, state, or local office; a convention or caucus of a political party that has authority to nominate a candidate for federal, state or local office; a primary election held for the selection of delegates to a national nominating convention of a political party; or a primary election held for the expression of a preference for the nomination of individuals for election to the office of President. A special election or a runoff election is treated as a primary election if held to nominate a candidate. A convention or caucus of a political party that has authority to nominate a candidate is also treated as a primary election. A special election or a runoff election is treated as a general election if held to elect a candidate. Any election or ballot measure to recall an individual who holds state or local elective public office is also treated as a general election.
( 5) “ Public communication” means any communication (as defined in paragraph (a)(2)(iii)(B)( 3) of this section)—
( i) By broadcast, cable, or satellite;
( ii) On an Internet Web site;
( iii) In a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical;
( iv) In the form of paid advertising; or
( v) That otherwise reaches, or is intended to reach, more than 500 persons.
( 6) “ Section 527 organization” means an organization described in section 527(e)(1) (including a separate segregated fund described in section 527(f)(3)), whether or not the organization has filed notice under section 527(i).
(C) Attribution. For purposes of this section, activities conducted by an organization include activities paid for by the organization or conducted by an officer, director, or employee acting in that capacity or by volunteers acting under the organization's direction or supervision. Communications made by an organization include communications the creation or distribution of which is paid for by the organization or that are made in an official publication of the organization (including statements or material posted by the organization on its Web site), as part of the program at an official function of the organization, by an officer or director acting in that capacity, or by an employee, volunteer, or other representative authorized to communicate on behalf of the organization and acting in that capacity.
(D) Special rule regarding contributions to section 501(c) organizations. For purposes of paragraph (a)(2)(iii)(A)( 4) of this section, a contribution to an organization described in section 501(c) will not be treated as a contribution to an organization engaged in candidate-related political activity if—
( 1) The contributor organization obtains a written representation from an authorized officer of the recipient organization stating that the recipient organization does not engage in such activity (and the contributor organization does not know or have reason to know that the representation is inaccurate or unreliable); and
( 2) The contribution is subject to a written restriction that it not be used for candidate-related political activity within the meaning of this paragraph (a)(2)(iii).
(c) Effective/applicability date. Paragraphs (a)(2)(ii) and (iii) of this section apply on and after the date of publication of the Treasury decision adopting these rules as final regulations in the Federal Register.
Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement.
1 In 2000 and 2002, section 527 was amended to require political organizations (with some exceptions) to file a notice with the IRS when first organized and to periodically disclose publicly certain information regarding their expenditures and contributions. See sections 527(i) and 527(j).
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
According to the Nonprofit Quarterly, the Washington Post's recent investigative piece, "Inside the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases at the nation's nonprofits," has captured the attention of Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a long-time overseer of tax-exempt organizations. The Post's article focused on the American Legacy Foundation and its less than full disclosure of what eventually amounted to a $3.4 million loss and a delayed call to investigators. The Post found that over a four year period more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations reported on their annual Forms 990 that they had discoverd a "significant diversion" of assets arising from "theft, investment fraud, embezzlement and other unauthorized uses of funds." As part of its investigative reporting, The Post, with the assistance of GuideStar, created a searchable database of nonprofits that have reported diversions. The Post article lists numerous other nonprofit organizations, comprising public charities, trade associations, veterans' associations, and other tax-exempts, that have had discovered diversions and misappropriations of funds totalling in the millions; a truly disturbing revelation.
As Nonprofit Quarterly reported, much more exploration on this topic is needed including, but not limited to, internal financial control difficulties, challenges for smaller organizations, the frontline capabilities of state attorneys general, and the effectiveness of actions taken by affected organizations. As NQ also concluded, Congress's review should include not only the source of these problems but also a focus on solutions.
As reported by the Daily Tax Report and Nonprofit Quarterly, the Citizens fpr Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has requested that the IRS take notice of the use of 501(c)(6)s as the new tax-exempt vehicle for political campaign activity. CREW specifically targeted Freedom Partners, a nonprofit organization linked to the Koch brothers that fundraised and distributed between $235 and $250 million in the 2012 election cycle, asking the IRS to review the organization's use of its tax-exempt status to funnel anonymous donations to other organizations conveying a predominantly conservative political message. Organizations that are tax-exempt under section 501(c)(6) are typically business leagues or trade associations associated with a particular line of business or industry. According to its website, Freedom Partners states that it is a "501(c)(6) chamber of commerce that promotes the benefits of free markets and a free society." Both the Nonprofit Quarterly and CREW similarly opine that Freedom Partners seems to lack a "common business interest" other than ideological. CREW acknowledged the "vague" rules governing 501(c)(6) organizations, requesting that the IRS provide clarification on required and restricted activities.
Matthew J. Lindsay (Baltimore) has posted "Federalism and Phantom Economic Rights in NFIB v. Sebelius" to SSRN. The abstract provides:
Few predicted that the constitutional fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would turn on Congress’ power to lay taxes. Yet in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court upheld the centerpiece of the Act — the minimum coverage provision (MCP), commonly known as the “individual mandate” — as a tax. The surprising constitutional basis of the Court’s holding has deflected attention from what may prove to be the decision’s more constitutionally meaningful feature: that a majority of the Court agreed that Congress lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to penalize individuals who decline to purchase health insurance. Chief Justice Roberts and the four joint dissenters endorsed the novel limiting principle advanced by the Act’s challengers, distinguishing between economic “activity,” which Congress can regulate, and “inactivity,” which it cannot. Because the commerce power extends only to “existing commercial activity,” and because the uninsured were “inactive” in the market for health care, they reasoned, Congress lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to enact the MCP. Critically, supporters of the activity/inactivity distinction insisted that it was an intrinsic constraint on congressional authority anchored in the text of Article I and the structural principle of federalism, rather than an “affirmative” prohibition rooted in a constitutional liberty interest.
This Article argues that the neat dichotomy drawn by the Chief Justice and joint dissenters’ between intrinsic and rights-based constraints on legislative authority is false, and that it obscures both the underlying logic and broader implications of the activity/inactivity distinction as a constraint on congressional authority. In fact, that distinction is animated less by the constitutional enumeration of powers or federalism than a concern about individual liberty. Even in the absence of a formal constitutional “right” to serve as a doctrinal vehicle, the justices’ defense of economic liberty operates analogously to the substantive due process right to “liberty of contract” during the Lochner era — as a trigger for heightened scrutiny of legislative means and ends — through which the justices constricted the scope of the commerce power.
Current scholarship addressing the role of individual liberty in NFIB v. Sebelius tends to deploy Lochner as a convenient rhetorical touchstone, to lend an air of illicitness or subterfuge to the majority’s Commerce Clause analysis. I argue that the Lochner-era substantive due process cases are both more nuanced and more instructive than judges and many scholars have realized. They illustrate, in particular, that constraints on legislative authority that are rooted in individual liberty and constraints on legislative authority that are rooted in enumerated powers and federalism can and do operate in dynamic relationship to one another. Reading NFIB v. Sebelius through this historical lens better equips us to interrogate the role that economic liberty plays in the majority’s Commerce Clause analysis, and provides an important alternative analytical framework to the structure/rights dichotomy advanced by the Chief Justice and joint dissenters. The activity/inactivity distinction not only portends a constitutionally dim future for federal purchase mandates, but may also herald more far-reaching restrictions on congressional interference with individual liberty, in which individual sovereignty assumes a place alongside state sovereignty in the Court’s federalism.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
As reported by the Nonprofit Quarterly, nonprofit organizations have no choice but to contend with a potentially extended government shutdown and the loss of government funds. The article refers to guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which issued a memorandum several weeks ago to all federal agencies entitled, “Planning for Agency Operations during a Potential Lapse in Appropriations.” In the memorandum, OMB advised federal agencies to update “their plans for operations in the absence of appropriations” and that “agency leaders should ensure that only those activities that are ‘excepted’ pursuant to applicable legal requirements would continue to be performed during a lapse in the appropriation for those activities.” As the article further states, one of the clear impacts of government shutdown for nonprofits are short-term financial decisions that could result in layoffs or furloughs.
Lois Lerner, the embattled former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations division, retired on Monday, September 23, 2013 after 30 years of civil service. As Politico stated in an article about Lerner's retirement: "Lois Lerner is the political piñata that Congress still loves to whack months after she awkwardly acknowledged that the IRS wrongly scrutinized conservative groups for years. Her sudden retirement on Monday after 12 years at the agency won’t change that."
The Huffington Post blog published an article yesterday entitled, "The IRS Scandal That Wasn't," providing an interesting historical and, of course, political recounting of the 501(c)(4) determination process with respect to politically-oriented organizations that led to Lerner's undoing. The article, however, makes a profound statement of caution in its conclusion: "Far more troubling is that the current brawl over the IRS may make the agency too gun shy to properly police tax-exempt groups."
Friday, September 20, 2013
We are now at Day 134 according to Paul Caron, with the IRS mess still attracting congressional press releases and media headlines. Recent significant developments include:
A Memo: The House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform released a 19-page memo providing an interim unpdate on its investgation. The memo paints a picture of a political environment in which President Obama and other leader Democrats were publicly and repeatedly criticizing Tea Party and other conservative, nonprofit groups and calling on the IRS to scrutinize them. The IRS, not surprisingly, was well aware of the political sensitivity of the pending Tea Party and 501(c)(4) applications, which led it to subject those applications to both greater scrutiny and higher-level scrutiny, with the now well-documented selectivity problems that tended to disproportionately impact conservative organizations. What the memo does not mention, presumably because the Committee has not found it, is any evidence that White House officials or others outside of the IRS directed the actions of the IRS employees that have come under criticism.
A Chart: USA Today obtained an internal IRS "Political Advocacy Cases" chart dated November 16, 2011 that lists 162 groups with comments relating to the possible political and other activities that might disqualify the groups from tax-exempt status. Of the organizations listed, more than 80 percent were conservative according to the USA Today article, although some progressive groups are also included.
IRS Responses: Recent weeks have seen several IRS actions relating to this mess, including:
- Optional Expedited Process: Over the summer, the IRS announced an optional process under which 501(c)(4) applicants with no private inurement issues and applications pending for more than 120 days as of May 28, 2013, can self-certify that their social welfare spending and time is 60% or more of their total spending and time (and political campaign intervention spendind and time is less than 40%) and by doing so receive a favorable determination within two weeks of doing so.
- Priority Guidance Plan: The IRS also provided in its 2013-14 Priority Guidance Plan that one priority will be "Guidance under §501(c)(4) relating to measurement of an organization's primary activity and whether it is operated primarily for the promotion of social welfare, including guidance relating to political campaign intervention."
- Suspension of Political Activity Audits: In testimony earlier this week before the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel announced that the IRS has suspended all examinations involving possible political campaign activity pending a review of the Exempt Organizations exmination function processes and procedures. He also noted that 29 such exams had been opened during the 2013 fiscal year.
501(c)(6)s: 501(c)(4)s may be old news. A Politico article reported that in November 2011 the Koch brothers helped establish Freedom Partners, a section 501(c)(6) organization with approximately 200 donors who each pay at least $100,000 in annual dues. Freedom Partners distributed the funds its raised - $256 million in its first year of existence of which $236 million went out the door as grants - to a network of conservative groups such as the Center to Protect Patient Rights, Americans for Prosperity, and The 60 Plus Association. As others have noted (Tax Notes Today article, subscription required), a 501(c)(6) has several advantages over a 501(c)(4), including being able to advance business interests instead of social welfare, not being covered by intermediate sanctions under section 4958, possibly also avoiding the public benefit doctrine, and not being subject to state attorney general jurisdiction over charitable organizations. At the same time, donors to 501(c)(6)s are, like donors to 501(c)(4)s, not subject to public disclosure.
Friday, August 23, 2013
Following up on my post from yesterday, Chris Van Hollen (and Democaracy 21, Campaign Legal Center, and Public Citizen) did file suit yesterday against the IRS and Treasury. For those of you interested in reading the Complaint, it is in the District Court for D.C., Case 1:13-cv-01276. I retrieved my copy from Bloomberg BNA online; if anyone has a public link, let me know and I'll post it. A quick summary
1. It's a proceding under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. 702/703/704/706(1)/and 706(2)(A), "to compel agency action unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed, and to set aside agency action that is contrary to law."
2. Quote: "By redefining 'exclusively' as 'primarily' in violation of the clear terms of its governing statutes, the IRS permits tax-exempt social welfare organizations to engage in substantial electoral activities in contravention of the law and the court decisions interpreting it" (p. 2).
3. In answer to my question of yesterday, the Plaintiffs assert the following personal harms:
- Denial of information regarding election expenditures as Section 501(c)(4) organization do not need to disclose donors, and
- Candidates such as Van Hollen and their organizations must compete on unequal terms with tax-exempt organizations that are not subject to disclosure.
4. The Complaint specifically alledges that the IRS' recent 40% safe harbor pronoucements allows too much non-exempt political activity.
5. Quote: "Electoral campaign spending by section 501(c)(4) organizations soared after the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life ... and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission .. , which, respectively, narrowly construed and then invalidated federal laws prohibiting corporate electoral campaign expenditures. In the wake of those decisions, section 501(c)(4) organizations became the vehicles of choice for mobilizing anonymous contributions for political purposes." (p. 9, cites omitted).
6. For those interested, the paragraphs that follow the quote above give some signficant figures regarding Section 501(c)(4) spending since Citizens United - e.g., in the 2012 presidential election, approximately $310 million in electoral campaign spending was by non-disclosing groups including section 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations. (p. 11).
7. The APA statutory standard of review is "arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion, or not in accordance with law." (p. 19).
P.S. 8/26 Reader Russell Willis was kind enough to point me to the following link for the petition:
Friday, August 2, 2013
As reported by the Daily Tax Report and others, email exchanges between the Federal Election Commission and Lois Lerner, then Director of IRS Exempt Organizations Division, reveal that the IRS may have unlawfully shared confidential tax information with the FEC, according to a July 30th letter from two House Ways and Means Committee leaders. According to the letter, nine minutes after receiving the email, Lerner requested that IRS attorneys "accommodate the FEC request." The letter requests Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel to produce by August 14 all communications between the IRS and the FEC between 2008 and 2012, including specific communications to and from Lerner with respect to certain organizations: American Future Fund, American Issues Project, and Citizens for the Republic, or Avenger, Inc.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
The Washington Times reports that House Republicans are considering “a major expansion of their investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservatives” by looking into the government’s audits of nonprofits. Some leaders of organizations exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (i.e., charities) reportedly find the audits “fishy” because of the IRS’s basically contemporaneous special scrutiny of tea party groups seeking recognition of exemption under section 501(c)(4). The story says that charities audited for the first time during this period include the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (the "BGEA"), the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and the Family Research Council.
Readers, kindly indulge me as I express an earnest plea for maintaining a nonpartisan, legally informed perspective in this matter. And, if it makes any difference, please understand that this perspective comes from someone who personally has long admired the leadership of the BGEA for their moral integrity and historic commitment to proclaiming the Gospel.
It is entirely appropriate for the IRS to audit a section 501(c)(3) entity to determine whether it is operating within the constraints imposed by Code section 501(c)(3). In general terms, these constraints include a prohibition against political campaign intervention (such as publicly endorsing identified candidates for public office) and limitations on lobbying. We can debate whether the law should be relaxed – and I have argued elsewhere that it should (somewhat). But the IRS is charged with enforcing current law. If the IRS discovers that a charity has engaged in public discourse of proposed laws or canddiates – and the Washington Times reports that BGEA did so in an election year – it is hardly unreasonable for the government to audit the organization to establish whether its activities complied with the law. Indeed, it is not uncommon for watchdog groups to alert the IRS when they have evidence that an entity may have crossed the line. Further, because there are other requirements for tax exemption under Code section 501(c)(3) (e.g., the prohibition against private inurement), an audit should probe the organization’s compensation policies, other transactions with insiders, and other aspects of its internal affairs. Naturally, the audit will feel intrusive. It is. It must be intrusive to be effective. It will also be time-consuming.
I have no idea whether groups identified in the story were selected for audit for the wrong reasons. Nor am I arguing that looking into the matter further is pointless. But news that a handful of religious or politically conservative section 501(c)(3) organizations have been audited, particularly when they have made public statements about proposed laws or candidates in an election year, seems quite a bit different from allegations that section 501(c)(4) applications were systematically processed according to buzzwords that distinguished tea party groups from others.
Section 501(c)(3)s and section 501(c)(4)s are subject to very different constraints on political activity. I urge caution before greatly expanding the investigation and devoting more public resources to it if it appears that the section 501(c)(3) organizations in question were visibly active participants in the political process during an election year.
Hat tip: TaxProf Blog
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
The IRS 501(c)(4) application mess continues to percolate, although most media attention has moved elsewhere. For those who want all the details, Paul Caron continues his comprehensive coverage at TaxProf Blog (The IRS Scandal, Day 69). Here are some highlights:
Congressional Hearings Relating to the IRS (including non-501(c)(4) issues)
- House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform
- House Committee on Ways and Means
- Status of IRS' Review of Taxpayer Targeting Practices (June 27th)
- Organizations Targeted by IRS for Their Personal Beliefs (June 4th)
- IRS Targeting Conservative Groups (May 17th)
- House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
- Oversight Hearing - Internal Revenue Service (June 3rd)
- Senate Committee on Finance
- Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review (May 14th)
- Congressional Research Service, 501(c)(4)s and Campaign Activity: Analysis Under Tax and Campaign Finance Laws (May 17th)
- Internal Revenue Service, Charting a Path Forward at the IRS: Initial Assessment and Plan of Action (June 24th)
- National Taxpayer Advocate, Special Report to Congress: Political Activity and the Rights of Applicants for Tax-Exempt Status (June 30th)
No word at this point on whether the Department of Justice will eventually generate a report (or indictments) based on its investigation, announced by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (from about the 22:45 mark to the 25:30 mark) on May 14th, after President Barack Obama personally addressed the IRS situation on May 13th.
If there is any silver lining to this situation, it is the possibility that needed reform in this area may gain traction. As fellow blogger John Colombo has already noted (and critiqued), The Bright Lines Project has been quietly working for more than four years to revise the definition of political campaign intervention in the federal tax laws. In response to the IRS mess, it has now accelerated its public push for legislation and regulations to implement its proposals. This push has already drawn public opposition from a senior fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics, indicating that The Bright Lines Project may in fact have some hope of changing the legal landscape for politically active tax-exempt organizations. Stay tuned.
Monday, July 15, 2013
Affirming a trial court's grant of summary judgment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently concluded that an organization seeking tax exemption under Internal Revenue Code § 501(c)(3) did not operate exclusively for charitable purposes because it operated for a substantial commercial purpose. In Family Trust of Massachusetts v. United States, decided June 28th, the named organization sought a declaratory judgement that it fell with section 501(c)(3). Family Trust of Massachusetts manages pooled account trusts that benefit individuals with disabilities without the assets in those trusts being counted for purposes of determining eligibility for certain government benefit programs.
After reviewing Family Trust's operations, the court concluded it operated in a commercial manner for several reasons. Those reasons included the fact that the organization consistently produced profits, apparently charged market rate fees, did not solicit charitable contributions to defray its costs, and did not use its accumulated funds to offset or waive trust management fees. The court also found that the Family Trust had a close relationship with its President's private law firm and marketed its services to affluent (and disabled) elder law clients who could afford both the minimum $25,000 deposit and $750 annual fee. The court therefore concluded that the Family Trust had a "pervasive commercial hue" that prevented it from qualifying for exemption under section 501(c)(3).
Monday, June 24, 2013
The IRS has issued its report on the (c)(4) "targeting" issue, available here. The report concludes that while there were "significant management and judgment failures," there is no evidence of intentional wrongdoing. The report indicates that senior IRS staff responsible for the determinations process have been replaced, and that the IRS will take a number of steps to insure similar situations do not recur.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is Appendix E, which provides an expedited review process for (c)(4) organizations whose applications for exempt status have been pending for more than 120 days. This process establishes a safe harbor presumption that the organization is engaged "primarily" in promoting social welfare if the organization certifies under penalties of perjury two items: The Appendix further defines relevant concepts as follows:
1. During each past tax year of the organization, during the current tax year, and during each future tax year in which the organization intends to rely on a determination letter issued under the optional expedited process, the organization has spent and anticipates that it will spend 60% or more of both the organization’s total expenditures and its total time (measured by employee and volunteer hours) on activities that promote the social welfare (within the meaning of Section 501(c)(4) and the regulations thereunder).
2. During each past tax year of the organization, during the current tax year, and during each future tax year in which the organization intends to rely on a determination letter issued under the optional expedited process, the organization has spent and anticipates that it will spend less than 40% of both the organization’s total expenditures and its total time (measured by employee and volunteer hours) on direct or indirect participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office (within the meaning of the regulations under Section 501(c)(4)).
The Appendix further defines relevant concepts as follows:
For purposes of these representations, activities that promote the social welfare do not include any expenditure incurred or time spent by the organization on--
- Any activity that benefits select individuals or organizations rather than the community as a whole;
- Direct or indirect participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of (or in oppositionto) any candidate for public office;
- Operating a social club for the benefit, pleasure, or recreation of the organization’s members; and
- Carrying on a business with the general public in a manner similar to organizations operated for profit.
For purposes of these representations, direct or indirect participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office (“candidate”) includes any expenditure incurred or time spent by the organization on:
- Any written (printed or electronic) or oral statement supporting (or opposing) the election or nomination of a candidate;
- Financial or other support provided to (or the solicitation of such support on behalf of) any candidate, political party, political committee, or Section 527 organization;
- Conducting a voter registration drive that selects potential voters to assist on the basis of their preference for a particular candidate or party;
- Conducting a “get-out-the-vote” drive that selects potential voters to assist on the basis of their preference for a particular candidate or (in the case of general elections) a particular party;
- Distributing material prepared by a candidate, political party, political committee, or Section 527 organization; and
- Preparing and distributing a voter guide that rates favorably or unfavorably one or more candidates.
In addition, solely for purposes of determining an organization’s eligibility under this optional expedited process, direct or indirect participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate includes any expenditure incurred or time spent by the organization on:
- Any public communication within 60 days prior to a general election or 30 days prior to a primary election that identifies a candidate in the election. For this purpose, “public communication” means a communication by means of any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication; newspaper, magazine, or other periodical (excluding any periodical distributed only to the organization’s dues paying members); outdoor advertising facility, mass mailing, or telephone bank to the general public; and communications placed for a fee on another person’s Internet website;
- Conducting an event at which only one candidate is, or candidates of only one party are, invited to speak; and
- Any grant to an organization described in Section 501(c) if the recipient of the grant engages in political campaign intervention.
Given my earlier post on the Bright Lines project, I find it particularly interesting that the IRS has defined the relevant standard by reference to BOTH expenditures AND employee/volunteer time. Hmmm . . . .
(Hat tip to Evelyn Brody)
Although some of the hubbub about 501(c)(4)'s and political activity has settled over the past couple of weeks, we shouldn't overlook the fact that the central fault leading to this mess was (and is) a set of un-administrable (and therefore unenforceable) rules regarding political campaign activity by exempt organizations.
In my back and forth with Rosemary Fei on 501(c)(4)'s, she mentioned that she was part of a group trying to provide better guidance on the line between prohibited political activity and permitted legislative lobbying or issue advocacy activity. This work is called The Bright Lines Project, and a full draft of their effort as of May, 2013, is available here.
In many ways, the project advances the IRS's own guidance on political activity by 501(c)(3) organizations published in Revenue Ruling 2007-41, but provides additional bright lines (pun unavoidable) on what is permitted and what isn't. It is a very thoughtful effort, modeled after the regulations on what constitutes lobbying expenditures under Section 4911 and the 501(h) election and fills some nagging holes in the IRS's guidance in Rev. Rul. 2007-41.
But I do think the project makes one mistake and ignores another very deep problem in this area. The one mistake is a sort of "pulpit speech" exception that is referred to as an exeption for "personal, oral remarks at official meetings." The project's explanation of this exeption is as follows:
Oral remarks made by anyone (other than a candidate) who is present in person at an official meeting of an organization held in a single room or location, so long as no announcement of the meeting refers to any candidate, party, election, or voting. This exception covers only oral remarks about candidates made by and to persons in attendance, not any other form of communication of those remarks, whether written, electronic, recorded, broadcast, or otherwise transmitted. A prominent disclaimer must be made to those attending, stating that such remarks are the speaker's personal opinion and are not made on behalf of the organization, and that the speaker is not advocating any of the actions set forth in Rule 3 [e.g., expressly calling for the election or defeat of a specific candidate or political party]
In it's examples, the Project notes that this rule would "permit a pastor to express his or her personal views on candidates from the pulpit. It would also allow parents at a PTA meeting, including officers, to express their views on candidates for school board. It would permit speeches, sermons, or discussions at any meeting of any tax-exempt organization to include expressions of opinion on those running for public office in upcoming elections, so long as such views were not made officially or on behalf of the organization."
My own view is that this exception is a huge mistake, because it will be exploited to the hilt by organizations intent on "having their say" about candidates. Face it - a Catholic priest, giving his "opinions" on candidates at Mass on the Sunday before the election will be viewed as an official church position, regardless how strong the "disclaimer" is that is attached to the remarks. We actually have a useful bright line on this kind of activity right now under Rev. Rul. 2007-41: you can't do it. The revenue ruling makes clear that speech such as this at an official function of an organization is prohibited, whether a disclaimer is attached or not. That seems to me to be an excellent bright line, and we should not replace it with an exploitable exception that is hardly a bright line.
The second major problem with the project is that it says nothing about the core problem that plagues 501(c)(4)'s (and 5's and 6's), which is "how much political activity is too much?" The project makes no attempt to set a bright line for when political activity becomes a "primary purpose" or otherwise address the "how much" issue.
This is a critical failing. The (c)(4) problem is as much (in my opinion, more) about how much political activity is permitted as it is in the dividing line between issue advocacy and campaign activity. Right now, we have nothing other than the vague notion that a (c)(4)'s "primary purpose" can't be political campaign activity - but there is no standard for judging "primary purpose."
So why not adopt a very clear bright line on this latter issue: the amount of political campaign activity permitted by (c)(4)'s, (5)'s and (6)'s is . . . zero. None. Absolute prohibition. Many of my colleagues believe there should be some "de minimis" amount of campaign activity permitted. I've heard things like "15%" thrown around, for example. But here's the problem: 15% OF WHAT? Of expenditures? Which expenditures? Of employee time? What if volunteers are used? Is the 15% per year or on a 4-year rolling average that we use elsewhere in 501(c)? If it's a 4-year average, that means an organization can "save up" for the presidential campaigns that happen every four years. Providing a de minimis exception is hardly a "bright line" in this area, unless one is going to couple it to a specific mathematical test like that provided in 501(h)/4911 for lobbying by 501(c)(3)'s. And anyone who's worked with that regime will tell you that it is incredibly complex, particularly when it comes to allocating expenditures (and I'd argue that the test doesn't account for volunteers or the fact that modern communication - e-mail and web sites - cost very little but have major communications impact). Do we REALLY want to go down that road? And if so, why? What is gained by such a rule other than complication and confusion? What part of "NONE" is so hard to understand or hard to comply with that we need an exception of some kind?
So I'll say it again. If we're really concerned about political campaign activity by (c)(4)'s, (5)'s and (6)'s, prohibit it; any organization that engages in political campaign activity in any amount that wants exemption should be subject to disclosure rules as Lloyd Mayer and others have argued - that is, shuffle them to 527 or some similar regime.
To actually solve the problems that led to the current mess, we need both bright line tests to distinguish between issue advocacy and political activity AND we need a bright line on how much activity is permitted. In the case of political campaign activity, "NONE" is a nice bright line that is mostly (not completely, I'll admit) incapable of exploitation . . .
[This represents a bit of change to my position, by the way - I'm actually OK with a 501(c)(4) category for organizations whose primary purpose is issue advocacy, including lobbying, IF such organization is prohibited from ANY campaign activity. It's probably a good thing to have such an organization that is also prohibited from receiving deductible contributions under 170 in order to avoid having (c)(3)'s used to end-run the 162(e) limits on the deductibility of lobbying expenses, and I'm also convinced there is a useful public benefit to issue advocacy.]
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Just as a follow up to yesterday's post on the Oregon spendig requirement, I took a quick look again at the Form 990 (go to page 10) and its instructions regarding the allocation of program service expenses (go to pages 41 through 43). My personal favorite is the instruction on how to allocate indirect costs, which requires the charity to list everything as an administrative cost in column C (that being not a program service expense) and then to add a separate, self-created line under "Other" in which the charity is instructed to place a negative number in column C in order to allocate indirect costs to program service in B or to fundraising expenses in D. So that's clear as mud -- no chance of error there.
Also, take a look at the list of administrative expenses to be reported in column C and think about a smallish charity - one that does a full Form 990 but is still relatively small in terms of revenue and expense - for example, a small medical clinic. The list in the instructions includes the CEO and staff by default (unless directly involved in program service oversight) as well as "costs of board of directors' meetings; committee meetings, and staff meetings (unless they involve specific program services or fundraising activities); general legal services; accounting (including patient accounting and billing); general liability insurance; office management; auditing, human resources, and other centralized services; preparation, publication, and distribution of an annual report; and management of investments." I wouldn't be surprised if such a charity had issues, or at least is forced into taking a fairly aggressive position on indirect cost allocations.
When we think about fradulent charities, I don't think most of us think of these types of expenses.
Just a thought. EWW
Thursday, May 30, 2013
While hospitals continue to be criticized for failing to provide sufficient charity care and other benefits - criticism that is likely to only increase as more information about such activities becomes available because of section 501(r) - Congress, the IRS, and the media appear to have an increasing and skeptical interest in nonprofit colleges and universities. Recent developments include:
- IRS Colleges & University Tax Compliance Report: As previously reported, the report identified widespread underreporting of unrelated business taxable income, although the total amount involved for the 34 institutions examined was only $90 million, and various issues with compensation setting processes and reporting.
- House Oversight Subcommittee Hearing: In response to the above report (and lost once the the 501(c)(4) mess broke), this Ways and Means Subcommittee heard from Lois Lerner regarding the above report.
- Weekly Standard: Are Universities Above the Law?: A wide-ranging critique of college and university governance, citing recent disputes ranging from the Robertson Foundation's litigation with Princeton University's to the Association of Alumni of Dartmouth's litigation against their alma mater.
- Fiscal Times: Backroom Financial Dealings of a Top University: This article highlights the generous compensation and loan packages provided by NYU, which became national news with the nomination of former NYU administrator Jack Lew for Treasury Secretary.
All of this scrutiny comes at a time when many colleges and universities are facing increasing criticism for too high tuition, too generous compensation packages, and exploitation of student athletes. Of course such concerns are not new for nonprofit scholars, including co-blogger John Colombo, who in 1993 wrote Why is Harvard Tax Exempt? (And Other Mysteries of Tax Exemption for Private Educational Institutions), 36 Arizona Law Review 841, and more recently examined the tax treatment of college athletics. But we may be seeing an unprecedented level of scrutiny that will may ultimately shift the nonprofit governance and tax exemption standards for such institutions.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Having read most of the news coverage of the current situation and written about at least some of the issues at the heart of it, here is my two cents (including, with self-promotion apologies, links to my relevant articles):
Contrary to John Colombo's proposal posted earlier on this blog, I believe that tax exemption (but not deductibility of contributions) for what are now classified as 501(c)(4)s is appropriate, and that exemption is also appropriate for what are now classified as 527s. With respect to exemption, without a specific provision addressing the tax status of these groups a lot of uncertainty about their tax treatment would exist. The uncertainty arises because of issues such as whether the contributions and dues they receive are “gifts” under IRC § 102 and so not includible in gross income, especially since their lobbying and political campaign intervention expenditures are generally not deducible under IRC § 162(e). I also believe that most of these groups are formed (and contributed to) not for profit-making purposes but to pursue other goals, such as advancing a particular vision of the public good or to elect one or more candidates, and so exempting them from the corporate income tax is appropriate. Donations to such groups should not be deductible, both because of concerns regarding the influence of special interest groups (discussed in a recent article by Brian Galle and to some extent in my previous lobbying article) and because allowing deductiblity would permit easy avoidance of IRC § 162(e).
As a matter of cleaning up the tax laws, I like Ellen Aprill's idea of creating a new tax-exemption category for organizations that primarily lobby and expanding the 527 category to include any organization that engages in political campaign activities. I have not thought this idea all the way through yet, however. I have thought more about the possible constitutional issues raised by such a change (most recently flagged by Bob Bauer) and my conclusion is that the Supreme Court's Taxation with Representation decision is still relatively secure and would permit this kind of line drawing (for more details, see my post-Citizens United lobbying article; a recent article by Ellen Aprill also reaches this conclusion). Bauer is right to flag this issue, however, since it is a live one, especially if the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision turns out to be only a way station to an even stronger reading of the First Amendment in this context as opposed to a high water mark.
Finally, with respect to requiring disclosure of political activities, including of donors whose funds support such activities, I favor not placing such requirements in the tax laws to be administered by the IRS but instead in the election laws to be administered by the admittedly far from perfect FEC for the institutional choice reasons described in my 527 regulation article. As to what political activities should trigger disclosure (e.g., direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying as well as election-related political activity?) and what should have to be disclosed (e.g., donors above what dollar threshold?), I have written a couple of articles (here and here) that touch on these topics and am working on another article focusing specifically on what political activities, particular political activities such as grassroots lobbying and bundling that involve private-private interactions, should trigger disclosure (watch this space!).