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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Idaho Freedom Foundation pushes limits of word ‘charity’

When you think of a “charity,” what do you picture? When you think about an organization that is dedicated to “education,” what sort of schooling springs to mind?

Does a charity rank every legislator in the state, scoring their conservatism numerically? Does an educational organization work to “educate” lawmakers to vote the way it wants them to? Does a charity show up more or less constantly throughout the Capitol to generously contribute influence?

Does an educational organization – a humble, nonpartisan, nonprofit, untaxed organization devoted to helping and knowledge – buy billboards attacking lawmakers who have resisted the education it offers?

Does a charity set this goal: “to be the most influential organization in the state – we want lawmakers and other policymakers to call us up and ask what constitutes good public policies, and then act accordingly”?

If the “charity” is the Idaho Freedom Foundation – whose head honcho, Wayne Hoffman, described its mission in the terms above – we are, rather incredibly, expected to take yes as an answer.

Capitalizing on the frankly insane boundaries for tax-free political activities, the Freedom Foundation’s very active political activism is a pungent example of the way that truth and transparency are debased in our political theater.

The IFF lobbies heavily, advertises, operates a news site with a strong starboard tack, writes bills, distributes op-eds, holds events and works its relationships with politicians very hard, according to extensive reporting on the group by the S-R’s Betsy Russell. One of its lobbyists boasted about how many bills he’d authored. Hoffman once talked a lawmaker into pulling a bill from the floor right before it was to be debated.

And yet, when tax time rolls around, tax time doesn’t roll around for the IFF. It pays the same taxes as Open Arms Pregnancy Care Center in Coeur d’Alene. Or the Dalton Gardens Church of Christ. Or the Idaho Falls Soup Kitchen.

All, according to the IRS, are nonprofit charitable organizations.

People who give money to the IFF are treated much like those who give money to Hagerman Valley Senior and Community Center or the Boys & Girls Club of Nampa – their identities are kept secret, and they can write off those contributions on their own taxes too.

Hoffman, when asked about these distinctions, has answered in seemingly straight-faced manner about where these ridiculous lines are drawn, and how he tiptoes right along that fine, preposterous edge. What it comes down to is the differences in tax policy – and his interpretation of them – delineating the differences between lobbying and educating, between advocating for policy and advocating for candidates.

“We’re an education organization,” Hoffman told the S-R earlier this year. “Our biggest focus is the education of policymakers.”

Call it Legislator School. The University of the Obedient Policymaker.

In Legislator School, what the instructors do is write bills for legislators to vote on. Hoffman said this about the practice: “As I understand it, that is not lobbying because what you are doing is you are working on helping lawmakers divine good public policy, which is what we do anyway. It’s educational.”

Divination Class. This kind of assertion could only be possible – though never plausible – in a system where language and standards of truthfulness have been eroded to the core. It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

The tax status of organizations that lobby legislators can be a complicated matter. Some legitimately charitable groups do some lobbying, but it’s not supposed to be the main focus if taxpayers are going to subsidize their efforts. The IFF seems virtually entirely dedicated to activities that a reasonable person would call lobbying – trying to influence the Legislature and others to support what it supports – as well as to the linguistic evasions around it. Anything short of using the words “vote yes” or “vote no” is not lobbying, Hoffman has asserted.

Further stretching the boundaries of make-believe, the IFF is putting up billboards attacking lawmakers who voted to create a state health-insurance exchange. As a nonprofit “charity,” IFF is prohibited from campaigning in elections, though allowed to lobby a bit on matters of policy. Hoffman says the billboards – naming lawmakers in their legislative districts – are lobbying but are not campaigning.

“This has nothing to do with elections,” Hoffman said.

It’s possible that the Idaho Freedom Foundation is being looked at by some tax cop or another, someone with the wholly reasonable suspicion that what’s happening there is not exactly working like it’s supposed to. Someone with the entirely proper idea that the same values that grant tax-free status to the Boise Youth Amateur Hockey Foundation or the Idaho Cancer Wellness Community should not apply to an organization that buys robo-calls to sway county ballot propositions. Someone who believes, perhaps, that we ought to call things by their right names.

There is a lot of false naming going on in politics right now – political groups masquerading as charitable or social welfare organizations in order to reap the tax savings and mask their donors. A lot of dark money influencing elections by staying on one side of the silly line between “policy ads” and “campaign ads.” It’s an epidemic of integrity-free hide and seek.

It’s not the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s fault that the lines are drawn as idiotically as they are. But it should be much more embarrassing than this for anyone to claim so strenuously to be something they so strenuously are not.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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