Bankrolling Beltway Badges
Kirk Watson cannot forget the first time he saw it. Watson, a former Austin mayor, was running as the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. Only about 10 days remained before the 2002 November election. His campaign was in full gear. On that Sunday, Watson planned to visit dozens of churches. It was early in the morning in a Dallas hotel room and the candidate was shaving with the television on in the background.
He didn’t see the initial visuals of the commercial as the screen scrolled past stirring images of surgeons saving lives and the state Capitol building. A somber voice intoned “Personal injury lawyers like Kirk Watson have made millions suing doctors, hospitals, and small businesses, hurting families and driving up the cost of healthcare. Greg Abbott is different.”
By this point Watson was standing before the television, holding his razor, his face still lathered. “A respected Supreme Court Justice,” the voiceover in the ad continued, “Greg Abbott believes in common sense lawsuit reform and Greg Abbott supports the swift and aggressive prosecution of sexual predators and child pornographers. Greg Abbott has a plan for Texas. To learn more, log on now. [www.leaa.org] Law Enforcement Alliance of America.”
Watson rapidly called his campaign manager, smearing the phone with shaving cream. He had only one question: Who in the world was the LEAA?
“We have to find out,” he told his campaign manager.
Over the remaining 10 days leading up to the election, the mysterious group with the strong law-and-order moniker spent about $1.5 million for ads that ran in every major media market in Texas, gunning down Watson and lifting up the GOP’s Abbott. (Ironically, it was Watson who had received an honorary commission in the Austin Police Department while Abbott sued and won millions on a lawsuit after a falling tree left him paralyzed.) While the Texas media buy in the Abbott-Watson race seems to have been the largest for any single state, the LEAA also spent millions for commercials against candidates in at least four other states in 2002. In some places, like Mississippi, the LEAA dropped more money on ads than all the candidates combined.
And Watson is still waiting for an answer to his question. The former mayor notes that he, not Abbott, received the endorsement of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, which is the largest police group in the state. Two years later, he still wants to know who was behind the LEAA? Who funded the campaign against him and why?
One agency tasked with policing groups like the LEAA is the Internal Revenue Service. But the IRS doesn’t appear to be interested. It has designated the non-profit LEAA as “a social welfare organization.” Under this tax designation, the LEAA can legally “educate” voters about issues but, it cannot advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. The IRS forbids such organizations from “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” When big money is the key to demolishing political opponents, the biggest advantage that any “social welfare” group like the LEAA enjoys is that it is legally allowed to keep all its donors, even the largest ones, hidden.
Currently, the LEAA is under investigation by a Travis County grand jury as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into the 2002 campaign. Did the LEAA cross the line between “education” and “advocacy?” Did the LEAA serve as a key component in a coordinated GOP plan to skirt campaign finance laws and funnel prohibited corporate money into Texas politics? Was the author of that plan U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land), whose principle objective was to redraw congressional lines so that more Republicans would be elected?
Those who track campaign money believe that the LEAA represents a troubling trend. “LEAA is one of a new breed of shadowy front groups that is willing to serve as a corporate money conduit and attack dog to benefit GOP candidates,” says Craig McDonald of the public policy organization Texans for Public Justice. “Its ‘issue ads’ are a mere hoax. When GOP candidates need a political attack from a so-called law-and-order group, they appear to funnel money to the LEAA to carry it out. “
What’s beyond dispute is the result of Greg Abbott’s ascension to attorney general. Without the attorney general’s approval, DeLay never would have been able to push through his redistricting plan. It was Abbott who was the first to rule that the state could pursue mid-decade congressional redistricting. This November, if Republicans do as well as expected, the GOP could lock in their controlling majority in the House of Representatives for years to come.
One day in late May, I decided to pay the LEAA a visit, so I drove less than 20 minutes from my office in Washington, D.C., to the edge of the I-495 beltway around the capital. I parked my car in a lot next to a northern Virginia office building filled with medical, accounting, and employment firms—and the headquarters of the LEAA, an organization that bills itself as “the nation’s largest non-profit, non-partisan coalition of law enforcement personnel, crime victims, and concerned citizens.”
I took the elevator to the LEAA’s suite 421, consisting of a handful of cramped offices.
By this point, I had already called the headquarters and sent a fax, on both occasions, with the same request. What I wanted was the LEAA’s Form 990s. These publicly available tax documents, while not naming contributors, list how much the organization spends and where the money goes. By law, one can show up in person at the IRS-registered address of any non-profit group and simply ask for its Form 990. The law requires the group to provide a copy “generally” on the “day of the request.” There are even minor fines for not doing so.
The receptionist said that LEAA Operations Director Ted Deeds was not in. I showed her a copy of IRS regulations. I pointed out that now I was here in person, and was legally entitled to walk away with the form. There was another person in the office, who identified himself as the webmaster of www.leaa.org. While I waited, he went to call Deeds. He returned and told me “Mr. Deeds would honor my request.” When I pressed for more information, he said that there was no more.
On June 4, I sent Deeds an e-mail requesting the same information, which I copied to the IRS Media Relations Specialist for northern Virginia, James C. Dupree. In keeping with IRS policy, regional spokesman Dupree declined to say what, if anything, he or the IRS did with my request. To ensure that the IRS got it, I sent a letter of complaint to the IRS enforcement office for non-profit groups, which is based in Dallas, Texas, on July 1. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen had already complained in writing about the LEAA to the same IRS office on May 14. (Public Citizen eventually obtained some of the LEAA’s older Form 990s from the IRS.)
At press time, the fines that could conceivably be levied against Chief Operating Officer Ted Deeds for ignoring two separate and ongoing requests for the LEAA’s 990 are more than $3,600, if the IRS were to enforce the law. “Responsible persons of a tax exempt organization who fail to provide the documents as required may be subject to a penalty of $20 a day for as long as the failure continues,” reads the tough language on the IRS website. “There is a maximum penalty of $10,000 for each failure to provide a copy of an annual information return.”
Four grand is no more than petty cash for a multi-million dollar non-profit like the LEAA, which had a budget in 2001 of nearly $5 million, according to a Form 990 obtained by Public Citizen. But $3,600 is not necessarily an insignificant amount for Ted Deeds, who is the official responsible, and who earned $82,500 operating the LEAA in 2001, according to the same form 990.
What Deeds has yet to provide to either the Observer or Public Citizen is the LEAA Form 990 for 2002. This is just one of the reasons why, according to Taylor Lincoln, a senior researcher at Public Citizen, the LEAA is the worst of its breed. Lately, Public Citizen and Lincoln have been collecting data on 30-odd non-profit groups involved in political campaigns, asking each one for copies of their Form 990s. “[The LEAA] are the only group which has not abided by its obligation to provide the form,” said Lincoln.
“A social welfare organization” like the LEAA is not supposed to be involved in politics, at least not full-time, according to the IRS website. “[A] social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” Moreover, “any expenditure it makes for political activities may be subject to tax.”
One way to tell whether an activity is “primary” is how much the group spends on it. The LEAA spent only $43,050 on “political expenditures” according to its Form 990 in 2000, and far less, only $2,500, on “political expenditures” in 2001. But in both years the LEAA spent $2.43 million and $3.47 million, respectively, on what the LEAA told the IRS was “enhancement and education to further the understanding of and the need for revision in the current criminal justice system and education of the public into second amendment rights.”
The certified public accountant who prepares the LEAA’s IRS filings is Nanette K. Miller, whose office is in Washington, D.C. I asked her whether these “enhancement and education” expenditures were properly filed, or whether they should have been recorded instead as “political expenditures.”
“He’d be the one you have to ask,” she said, referring to LEAA Operations Director Ted Deeds. “I can’t disclose anything without talking to him, anyway.”
Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University said that groups like the LEAA are taking advantage of a loophole involving the difference between federal and state laws. Since the Supreme Court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation in 2003, it no longer matters what “magic words” groups like the LEAA use, says Goldberg. Whether or not they run “issue ads” or explicitly endorse a candidate, such groups must disclose their contributors for any ads they run during federal races. But they only need to do so for ads they run during state races if the state itself has such a law. “Both Texas and Mississippi,” said Goldberg, are among the states that do not.
Of course, the LEAA is hardly the only IRS-registered “social welfare” organization doing “public education.” One such group on the opposite side of the nation’s political fence is MoveOn.Org, which had a budget of $4.48 million in 2003, on par with the LEAA’s budget in 2001. While LEAA refuses to disclose its latest balance sheet, MoveOn.Org provided its Form 990s in compliance with the law. Moreover, while the LEAA has no “political” entity registered with the IRS, MoveOn has two other registered political groups, a Voter Fund and a Political Action Committee, both of which are required by law to disclose every contributor who donates $200 or more.
IRS officials confirm that the LEAA filed a balance sheet with the IRS for 2002. By law, anyone should be able to obtain this form from the IRS. But after more than four months, the IRS has still failed to produce the document in a “timely manner” in violation of the laws governing the agency.
A month ago, Mark W. Everson, the man President Bush tapped to be commissioner of the IRS, promised Congress that the agency was finally going to clean up dirty non-profits. “It’s fair to say this problem has crept up over time, and our response has lagged,” replied Commissioner Everson under questioning from senators, adding that the IRS would be reviewing non-profit groups as soon as this summer to start enforcing the law.
“It’s obvious from the abuses we see that there’s been no check on charities,” complained the chairman of the finance committee, Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Chairman Grassley went on, “Big money, tax free, and no oversight have created a cesspool in too many cases.”
But which non-profit “cesspools” will the IRS clean up first?
IRS officials said that Commissioner Everson is most concerned about non-profit groups and their affiliates whom the IRS suspects of either engaging in criminal fraud to deceive contributors or of hiding taxable income from the IRS. The latter includes environmental trusts, said the IRS official, who added,
“[Everson] was not talking about the issue you raise.”
What about a little enforcement when the “law-and-order” group breaks the law?
“It would be a violation of federal law for us to comment on a specific entity,” said Bruce Friedland, public affairs specialist at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C., declining to answer questions about why the IRS has failed to sanction the LEAA. All Friedland would say was, “This is a matter that the IRS takes very seriously.”
Commissioner Everson previously served in the Justice Department and in the Immigration and Naturalization Service back in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. More recently, Everson left a job in Dallas as vice-president of a multi-billion dollar, Texas-based food service company, to serve President Bush first in the Office of Management and Budget, where he reportedly earned a reputation for efficiency.
But the IRS under his leadership hardly looks efficient when it comes to the LEAA.
The Law Enforcement Alliance of America was reportedly started in 1991 by a grant from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which set up the LEAA just eleven miles away from its own headquarters in northern Virginia. Tax records from both groups show that the NRA has continued to finance the LEAA. But the LEAA’s mission appears to have expanded since its early days, as a Republican election machine controlled from Washington, D.C., has increasingly come to rely on “issue” ads as part of its national strategy. The Law Enforcement Alliance has been allying itself with other groups connected to the GOP as part of this growing effort. In the process, the LEAA’s bank account has grown and its message has changed depending on the circumstance. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Texas, where the LEAA found new friends in the Texas Association of Business (TAB), and a political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) founded by House Majority Leader Tom Delay.
In 2002, TRMPAC and TAB were busy supporting candidates and pushing “issue” ads in an effort to remake the Texas Legislature. And indeed, after a slate of 19 Republican state representatives and senators won victory, they proceeded to elect DeLay’s close friend Tom Craddick (R-Midland) speaker of the House and push through, not only mid-decade congressional redistricting, but a host of giveaways for the corporate financiers of the campaign. A central link among all these groups and a likely target of the Travis County grand jury is John Colyandro.
Colyandro was the executive director of TRMPAC. He also worked on Greg Abbott’s campaign. According to a deposition in a civil suit filed by some of the losing Democratic candidates, Colyandro admitted that he contacted the LEAA to see if they would get involved in Texas legislative races. He has denied involvement in the LEAA’s television ads against Watson. Remarkably, four ads created for the $1.9-million TAB “issue” ad campaign mysteriously ended up with LEAA logos on them.
The ads were hardly subtle. “Mike Head is on the side of convicted baby killers and murderers,” rea
one. “When suspec
ed crack cocaine traffickers and marijuana dealers found themselves in jail, Paul D. Clayton came to their aid,” read another.
The movement of the ads between the groups seems to indicate coordination between them, which could violate their tax status. This could become an important point in the grand jury proceedings as it brings into question how “independent” their “independent expenditures” really were.
The LEAA may also be channeling funds into other state races for America’s largest “business league,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents more than three million firms, and includes an Institute for Legal Reform that carries out what its spokesman calls “voter education” in both national and state elections across the nation.
While the LEAA’s big issue is gun rights and criminal justice, the Chamber’s big issue is tort reform and limits on lawsuit damages. The organization has spent millions to support candidates on the lawsuit-reform bandwagon. “There are 42 supreme court races, and 11 attorney general races” in different states this year, said Sean McBride, vice president of communications for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.
The Chamber, like the LEAA, favors unaccountable voter education drives. “We do not give contributions directly to candidates,” said McBride. “We take a hard look at those races in cooperation with business groups or other non-profits in those states.”
Do the non-profits include the LEAA?
Chamber spokesman McBride declined to comment.
When also asked about the LEAA, the Chamber’s General Counsel, Steve Bokat similarly replied, “I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
No matter who is writing checks to the LEAA, its budget has increased nearly fivefold in just seven years. From 1995 through 1998, the NRA donated more than $500,000 a year to the LEAA, covering either nearly or slightly more than half of the LEAA’s budget, according to tax records from both groups obtained by the Observer. But the LEAA’s budget has swelled in recent years from $1.32 million in 1997 to $4.48 million by 2001. There is speculation the group spent even more money in 2002.
In addition to its presence in Texas, the LEAA has fought hard in Mississippi, which has long been the scene of pitched battles between trial lawyers and business interests. Two years ago, the LEAA sponsored smear ads in Mississippi against one 12-year sitting state Supreme Court justice. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was active in Mississippi Supreme Court races in years past as well, but, in 2002, neither the Chamber nor its ads were anywhere in sight, while LEAA ads were everywhere.
What was odd about the LEAA’s campaign against this sitting Mississippi justice, Chuck McRae, was that, unlike many previous targets of the LEAA, he was a proud gun owner and the LEAA had no beef with him about gun rights. However, many businesses and, especially, doctors opposed Judge McRae’s re-election, complaining that he was too plaintiff-friendly in his Mississippi Supreme Court decisions. The LEAA’s ads, meanwhile, attacked him that year for overturning at least one murder conviction, and for voting against the disbarment of an attorney charged with stealing money from his own clients.
“What we find with a lot of these ‘front groups’ is that they adopt innocuous-sounding names that your average person is more likely to identify with than the chamber of commerce,” said Public Citizen’s Taylor Lincoln. “Take the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. Who is against law enforcement?”
It’s unclear whether the Travis County grand jury has tried to contact John W. Chapman, the chairman of LEAA’s board of directors, to ask him what he knows about the 2002 Texas campaign. It wouldn’t be hard; he’s just up the road on I-35. Chapman is a former police officer for juvenile offenses in Killeen, Texas. He joined the LEAA after the mass shooting by a lone gunmen in a Luby’s cafeteria there in 1991. On the LEAA website, www.leaa.org, Chapman can be seen in one photo shaking hands with then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, and in another photo with a past NRA President. (Chapman declined to comment for this story.)
State officials in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Kansas have accused the LEAA of illegally pumping money into their state’s electoral campaigns in violation of this group’s so-called “social welfare” status.
One judge in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, Paul F. Lutty Jr., issued a temporary restraining order against the LEAA over its ads in the Keystone State in 2001. But even those who disagreed with LEAA ads, like the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said the county judge’s ruling was a violation of free speech.
One of the largest LEAA campaigns after Texas was a 2002 attorney general race in Illinois, where the LEAA spent a reported $1.3 million. The group attacked a Democratic candidate, Lisa Magidan, telling voters that she “has never tried a single crime,” while pointing out that the Republican candidate, Joe Birkett, was an experienced prosecutor. This time the LEAA’s Executive Director James Fotis characterized the ads as “freedom of speech.”
Indeed they are. But since running such ads amounts, as the LEAA’s own IRS filings show, to the group’s primary activity, if the IRS were to determine that these expenses should be filed as “political” instead of “educational,” not only would the LEAA lose its “social welfare” status and be required to pay taxes on its political campaigns, but it would also be required finally to shed light on its contributors.
There are others who criticize the LEAA for different reasons. Jim Pasco is executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. It’s the nation’s largest law enforcement association with more than 300,000 members. The Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and has more than 2,100 local lodges nationwide. The FOP also has a National Legislative Office that occupies three floors of a Capitol Hill townhouse.
“It’s absurd to suggest that LEAA represents the law enforcement community,” said Pasco, who is himself a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms special agent.
These two groups have worked together. Both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Law Enforcement Alliance backed a federal law, now awaiting President Bush’s signature, that will allow off-duty as well as retired police officers to carry concealed weapons in any state. But on other issues, from state supreme court to attorney general races, Pasco says the LEAA does not represent America’s law enforcement personnel.
“There is no way on God’s green earth that the LEAA could spend millions of dollars on campaign ads,” said Pasco. “It’s not their money.”
How much money the LEAA spent in 2002 and who provided it is anybody’s guess. Since the LEAA and the IRS refuse and fail, respectively, to give a proper public accounting, the mystery will remain unsolved for the time being. More importantly, in the absence of a legal deterrent, who knows what plans are being laid for the LEAA to strike once again in October, 10 days before the election?
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work can be seen at www.franksmyth.com. Additional writing and reporting for this article was contributed by Jake Bernstein.