The rise of politically-active nonprofits – deemed “dark money” groups by their critics – has been a hot-button issue in the last few election cycles. Election laws generally do not require groups operating under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, commonly referred to as social welfare organizations, to register as political committees or disclose their
But, there are a lot of ways to improve PAC fundraising.
A Florida-based trade association voluntarily came forward to the FEC to disclose that it had reimbursed travel expenses for PAC contributors and was fined $9,000. The FEC found that the group developed a schedule for reimbursing travel expenses based on the amount given or pledged to the PAC. Under that system, the association reimbursed approximately $55,000 in travel expenses over the course of four years. Because of those travel reimbursements, the FEC concluded that the association had, in effect, reimbursed the PAC contributions. As such, it made impermissible corporate contributions and contributions in the name of another.
The reimbursement formula depended on the amount given or pledged to the PAC. Those who gave $1,000 per year, would get $750 in travel for each of two meetings, or a total of $1,500 per year. $100 contributors got $150 per meeting, or $300 total. If the association had reimbursed all directors for travel regardless of PAC contributions, that would have been fine. The problem was that the reimbursements were tied to the PAC contributions.
The FEC has said that the method for reimbursement does not matter. Bonuses, expense reimbursement, etc. are all impermissible. There are, however, permissible ways to incentivize PAC giving:
Pay-to-play laws restrict or prohibit businesses, as well as their owners, officers, and in some cases, their employees, from making political contributions (the “pay”) if they have been awarded or are trying to obtain government contracts (the “play”). These laws, which are found at the federal, state and local levels, are an outgrowth of government contracting scandals and can strike at a company’s bottom line by disqualifying bids and voiding contracts. Violations also can result in fines, damaging publicity, and even jail.
Government contractors should have a pay-to-play compliance plan that takes into account the jurisdictions where covered owners, officers, and employees are located, and where the company does or seeks to obtain business with government agencies. In addition, contractors should have a process for training covered employees, a mechanism for pre-clearing contributions, and protocols for meeting registration and ongoing reporting requirements.
Here are a few questions to help determine whether pay-to-play laws pose a risk to your business:
- Do pay-to-play laws apply to my business activities?
- If so, which affiliated individuals and entities are subject to the law?
- What are the consequences for covered individuals and entities (prohibitions, reduced contributions limits, reporting, other)?
- What are the penalties for violating applicable pay-to-play laws?
Maryland has had a pay-to-play law for many years, which requires government contractors to register and file reports concerning political contributions to state and local candidates. Since 2015, the law has been in a state of flux as legislators and regulators have written and re-written the requirements, creating a complex reporting system.
The law is…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For investment advisers and others subject to the pay-to-play rules, that is. Although both vice presidential picks have gubernatorial experience, because Mike Pence is a sitting governor and Tim Kaine is a former governor, there are certain pay-to-play rules that apply to contributions to Trump/Pence that do not apply to Clinton/Kaine. Thus, the Pence pick has important implications for many companies and firms engaged in the financial services industry.
As reported by various news outlets, Governor Pence’s role with the Indiana Public Retirement System subjects contributions to the Trump/Pence ticket to the SEC’s and other pay-to-play rules. Violations of these rules can carry significant penalties. And the shadow of the pay-to-play fundraising restrictions has even caused some to speculate that Pence should resign as governor.
The question of when a politically-active, nonprofit 501(c)(4) group must publicly disclose its donors has been on the front burner in various states—most, like New York and California, have called for greater regulation, while others like Arizona have loosened the reins. At the federal level, silence has been the norm because the statute is generally read as only requiring disclosure by a 501(c)(4) (or other nonprofit such as a 501(c)(6)) if a donor contributes for the purposes of funding a particular ad. The FEC has consistently deadlocked on complaints alleging either that a donor gave for the purpose of supporting an ad or that a 501(c)(4) should be treated as a political committee and disclose all of its donors.
Last week, however, details were released from an FEC enforcement matter that met this stringent test and, as a result, the Commission levied fines totaling $233,000 against three nonprofit groups for failing to identify donors behind specific advertisements. These three settlement agreements, released as a group, provide significant guidance to nonprofit 501(c)(4)s and other actors as to what type of conduct will trigger donor disclosure at the federal level.
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The 2016 election cycle is in full swing, and major changes to the financial services regulatory landscape, including the Dodd-Frank Act and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), could turn on the outcome of the election. Whether your company wants to play a role in the election or your executives are personally supporting candidates, it’s important to understand the rules.
Long before Citizens United allowed corporations to fund independent expenditures to support candidates, the Supreme Court allowed corporations to contribute to ballot measure committees. Until recently, disclosure was a fairly straightforward matter: give to the official committees supporting or opposing the measure and the contribution would be disclosed; give to other entities (like a nonprofit) that give to the official committees, and the corporation’s contribution would not be disclosed. After Citizens United, however, states’ fear of corporate involvement in candidate races led many states to require disclosure of “upstream” contributions. Those changes often applied not only to contributions for candidate independent expenditures, but also to contributions for ballot measures.
We have written about California before. Recently, Washington State has focused on the intermediary issue of when a nonprofit must disclose its donors. A trial court in Washington State ruled that a trade association should have registered itself as a ballot measure committee based on a special project it undertook to challenge state initiatives about food labeling. The result of this decision is that member companies had to disclose their contributions to the association for the special project.…
Continue Reading Ballot Initiative Disclosure
The Federal Election Commission recently concluded an investigation into contributions from a Canadian citizen to a candidate for governor. Why would the FEC investigate a state contribution? Because the ban on contributions from foreign nationals applies not just to federal candidates, but to state and local candidates as well.
The FEC dismissed the case because the state candidate did not know the contributions were illegal. In fact, he had checked with state election officials, who told him there was no issue under state law. There wasn’t, but there was an issue under federal law.
Foreign nationals are individuals who are not U.S. citizens or non-citizens who do not have permanent resident (i.e., green card) status, as well as any companies incorporated, organized, or located abroad. U.S. citizens living in other countries are permitted to contribute.
As we get closer and closer to the elections, candidates will be working harder and harder to raise money. One tried and true method is the fundraiser: an individual agrees to put together an event where his or her closest friends will make substantial contributions to the candidate, attend a breakfast, lunch, cocktails, or dinner, meet the candidate, and, if they contribute enough, get a picture with the candidate. While this may seem simple and straightforward, companies often get into trouble when they use their corporate resources to help put on fundraisers.
The largest fine in FEC history ($3.8 million) came as a result of corporate facilitation back in 2006. Others have followed. The FEC just unveiled an enforcement case involving a Nevada architectural firm that paid a substantial fine for using corporate resources to hold a fundraiser. The settlement provides a good example of how not to fundraise for federal candidates. …
Continue Reading Hosting Fundraisers: One Company’s Example of How Not to Do it