Thursday, May 12, 2005

Miller and Advance America Abuse Non-Profit Status

An Advance Indiana analysis of Advance America's legislative and lobbying activities reveals wholesale abuse by the organization and its leader, Eric Miller, of the organization's tax exempt status. Advance America is organized as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization under the Internal Revenue Code. As such, if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation, it may not qualify as a 501(c)(3) organization. Further, it is absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.

Advance America bills itself as a "nonpartisan educational organization", but an analysis of its activites confirms that it is neither nonpartisan or educational. The organization and its full-time lobbyists are intimately involved in both writing legislation and lobbying for or against legislation which advances its far-right religious agenda. To this end, it has developed a vast statewide communications network to disseminate information about its causes to its righteous followers. The organization hosts a seminar annually in the fall prior to the start of the legislative session to discuss its legislative agenda and to instruct its followers on how best to lobby the legislature. This is supposedly the education component of the organization, but it's really no more than a political rally for the faithful to attend, to learn about the organization's legislative agenda and to hear from friendly elected representatives. To keep its members informed, it maintains a 24-hour hotline which its followers can call to get the latest information on legislative action, and it provides updates through faxes, e-mails and mailings. It produces 1-minute, partisan legislative summaries it distributes to more than 50 radio stations around the state. Its Rapid Action Network prompts its followers to contact legislators to express support for the organization's legislative positions. As an example, its Rapid Action Network swamped Indianapolis city council members with e-mails from the organization's followers from around the state urging the council members to vote down Indianapolis' city ordinance extending civil rights protections to gays, lesbians and transgendered persons. The organization holds rallies at the State House like the one it held this spring urging the adoption of the constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages and civil unions. Only favored legislators, typically all Republican, are invited to speak at the organization's events.

One of its most potent weapons in its political lobbying arsenal is its Voting Record Summaries distributed in a voting guide. The organization scores state legislators annually by preparing Voting Record Summaries showing each legislator's support or opposition to its legislative items. The organizations boasts that it mails more than 880,000 voting guides detailing each members' voting records to voters on the eve of a general election. Many legislators, both Republican and Democract, personally oppose Eric Miller and his legislative agenda; however, they are so worried about the impact the organization's partisan portrayal of their voting record will have on their election prospects, they vote with the organization as a path of least resistance.

To its credit, the organization does annually register to lobby the Indiana General Assembly as it is legally obliged. Both Miller and Dwight Williams, a former insurance industry lobbyist and current executive director of the organization, register as compensated lobbyists of Advance America. On any day the legislature is in session you can be assured that one or both of its lobbyists will be on the ground plying their trade. While the organization does meet its legal requirement to register and report its lobbying activites, it grossly understates the extent of its lobbying activites in reports it files yearly with the IRS and the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. I will have more on that in a future post.

According to IRS regulations for 501(c)(3) organizations, influencing legislation includes "action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions or similar items, or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or similar procedure." An organization, according to the regulations, will also be regarded as influencing legislation "if it contacts, or urges the public to contact members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation." Any fair and independent analysis of Advance America's activities can only conclude that a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation.

The organization's argument that it is a nonpartisan organization rings hollow. Advance America's founder and long-time CEO, Eric Miller, is a registered Republican and a former Republican candidate for Governor. He is very active in Republican Party matters, particularly in lobbying key Republicans to insure that his organization's right wing positions are included as key planks in the state's party platform, such as opposition to same sex marriages and abortions. If you visit Advance America's website, you will find video files of various interviews Miller has conducted with members of the legislature, all of whom are Republican. There are interviews with Senators Jeff Drozda and Brandt Hershman and Representative Woody Burton. There are personal testimonies from Senator Lugar, Congressmen Dan Burton, Mike Pence and Steve Buyer, Representative David Frizzell and former Governor Otis Bowen, all Republicans, praising the virtues of the organization and its founder and lobbyist in chief, Eric Miller. At public events, such as State House rallies, the organization only invites political candidates who support its positions to speak. This practice is a clear violation of the IRS rules requiring equal participation. Miller, himself a former candidate, makes little effort to distinguish his own political ambitions from that of his tax-exempt organization. Organization events often include banners with his name emboldened as much as the organization's name. As a candidate for Governor, Miller alone was permitted to tap into the organization's database to mine for volunteers and contributors. Miller and his organization insist that they are merely engaging in permissible voter education efforts and not political campaign activity. Any fair and balanced analysis of the activites of, and the information disseminated by the organization shows that it consistently portrays legislation in a very bias manner based upon its far right religious views, which evidence its true intent: to favor one candidate over another; oppose a candidate in some manner; or have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, all of which constitute prohibited participation or intervention in violation of IRS regulations.

Advance America is a political action committe and, as such, should be so organized and regulated. By impermissibly organizing as a tax-exempt organization, Advance America is evading our campaign finance laws and obtaining a tax benefit to which it is not entitled. Advance America does not have to disclose the source and amounts of its contributors as such, and it does not voluntarily reveal to the public any information about the source of its funds. It should. Its contributors are able to influence the legislative process and campaigns and, at the same time, receive a tax deduction for their contributions. Legally made political contributions, on the other hand, are not tax deductible. The organization claims that it has more than 3,800 churches across the state participating in its organization. Are these tax-exempt churches contributing funds to what is clearly a political organization in violation of IRS rules? Miller and Advance America owe the public a lot of answers to questions like these. I believe it is time for the IRS and our U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, Susan Brookes, to investigate Miller and Advance America's blatant abuse of its tax-exempt status to promote its partisan, political agenda. If you agree, let it be known. Write to the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's office, and your legislator and let them know you think Advance America should be investigated for abusing its 501(c)(3) status. That is the only way we're going to make it happen--pressure the people who can find out what is really going on over at Advance America.

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