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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: At long last, Idaho Freedom Foundation’s karmic backlash arrives

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Has the Idaho Freedom Foundation – the faux charity that strives to be the kingmaker and king-slayer of Gem State politics – caught a serious illness? Or just a seasonal bug?

Either way, the sicker the IFF is, the healthier Idaho politics will be.

After a campaign by the group to organize protests defying Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order – and after helping to instigate a protest at a Meridian police officer’s home led by the wannabe patriot hero Ammon Bundy – the intensity of criticism flowing toward the IFF from conservatives has been remarkable. It seems that long-simmering resentment of the group, which likes to throw its weight around the Statehouse, has burst into the open at last after IFF’s irresponsible effort to turn viral ignorance into a wingnut battle for freedom.

They give liberty a bad name.

A former state lawmaker, Jeff Siddoway, called the group’s leader, Wayne Hoffman, an “idiot” in a withering op-ed two weeks ago, and said the IFF’s legislative strong-arming was “exactly the same” as McCarthyism.

The editorial board of the Idaho Post-Register compared Hoffman to Jonestown cult leader Jim Jones. Idaho’s multilevel marketing baron, Frank VanderSloot, called the IFF’s protests “crazy” and publicly criticized the IFF as a clubby influence peddler.

And a new complaint filed with the IRS cuts straight to the heart of the IFF charade: its nakedly ludicrous registration as a “charity” with the IRS.

The IFF is registered as a 501(c)3, which means it is not supposed to engage in “substantial” lobbying but operate chiefly as a charitable organization devoted to education, as opposed to a political action organization. The charitable designation allows donors to avoid paying taxes or disclosing their identities.

IFF is surely not the only obviously political group that cloaks itself in the 501(c)3 designation – the Washington Policy Center comes to mind – but it may have stretched the limits of that cloak more than anyone, anywhere, in its 11-year existence.

If you include both IRS definitions for lobbying – direct lobbying of lawmakers and grassroots lobbying to persuade the public – it’s hard to see that IFF does anything other than lobby. And no one knows who’s buying all that influence. Because it’s a charity.

Wink!

The recent complaint, filed by Carrie Scheid of Idaho Falls, says IFF has engaged in lobbying that exceeds the rules for a 501(c)3, and that its support for defying Little’s legal stay-home order violates IRS rules prohibiting nonprofits from engaging in illegal behavior.

In a state where the political divide is conservative versus more conservative versus most conservative, the IFF has always held itself up as the arbiter of true conservatism. Its positions are often the most extreme anti-government takes, and it seems to be guided by a set of libertarian principles devised by a high school junior who just discovered Ayn Rand.

Whatever its tax status and however it attempts to justify that, the IFF is a political influence machine, first and last. Its annual Freedom Index rates lawmakers and has become an obvious endorsement by the group – even as the group claims, for the purposes of secrecy and tax avoidance, it does not endorse candidates. Its hands-on influence on Boise lawmaking is well-documented. And it has begun accruing some political enemies and backlash from the right as the years have gone on.

But only recently has it suffered the kind of reaction that makes you wonder if the group might suffer a lasting consequence. That its influence might suffer a serious, or even fatal, blow. Urging Idahoans to repeatedly defy the governor’s legal stay-home order turned off many, even among those who might agree with IFF on a lot of issues. IFF organized protests at the Capitol and elsewhere, selling it all in the kinds of hyped-up Boston Tea Party rhetoric that resonates so well on the starboard fringes.

“This is the moment patriots warned us about,” Hoffman said in a video posted online. “You have to disobey.”

Worse was IFF’s role in a night of “patriot” protests at the home of a Meridian police officer.

You may recall that a Meridian woman who is an outspoken anti-vaxxer and activist, Sara Brady, was arrested at a park there April 21, as part of a planned protest, after tearing down the “Do Not Cross” tape at a park and letting her kids play there, then repeatedly refusing to leave when police asked her to. Brady eventually turned her back to police, placed her hands behind her back and demanded to be arrested.

The liberty grifters anointed her the next Patrick Henry.

The IFF posted the name and photograph of the officer who approved the arrest on Facebook: “This is (the officer’s name). He authorized the arrest of Sarah (sic) Walton Brady today at a Meridian park. Let the Meridian Police Department know how you feel.”

Bundy and dozens of fellow nitwits showed up at the home of this officer, crowding the sidewalks, shouting and posting a list of grievances on the door. Meanwhile, IFF’s Parish Miller was posting incendiary idiocy online such as this: “Just remember, shooting somebody who is trying to kidnap you is always justified.”

The camel’s back broke. The whispers turned to shouts.

Caldwell Rep. Greg Chaney, a Republican, posted a video telling followers to beware the “snake oil salesmen and political opportunists” selling the defiance movement.

A former GOP candidate and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Oscar Evans, wrote an op-ed in the Idaho Statesman to his “conservative friends.”

“Make no mistake about it, the people that showed up at the home of the Meridian police officer – his personal private residence where he and his family take refuge from the insanity of this world – do not support law enforcement, do not hold the Constitution above all else and do not just want to protect everyone’s freedom and liberty. It’s much deeper, much darker and much more sinister than that,” he wrote.

VanderSloot, Idaho’s richest man and no stranger to political influence, said publicly that he was shocked at how nakedly the IFF traded favors in the Capitol. He also blasted its defiance of the stay-home order.

“This is crazy … that we have people in our community who are out there advocating that we disobey the law because they don’t like it,” he said in an interview with EastIdahoNews.com. “Then to attack the police officer, who his job is to enforce the law, and to put his name advocating that people show up at his home and tell him and the public and the police force how we feel about him and the job he’s doing? What in the world? But this is typical of what we see from the Idaho Freedom Foundation.”

Hoffman has defended his group, denying that it instigated the protest at the officer’s home, and distancing IFF from that event – while acknowledging that some of the group’s friends were a part of it. With regard to the IRS complaint, he’s said, “the complainant clearly doesn’t understand the law.”

He might be right. The IFF has been running this shell game for more than a decade, and is not the only “think tank” doing it. So maybe it will win and recover from this malady, and all this will blow over.

The state’s politics will be healthier if it doesn’t.

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