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Why Isn’t The Tea Party of Louisiana Registered As A Political Committee?

In 2013, the Internal Revenue Service, already the least popular governmental agency in the country, became the target of intense investigations by members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, and the FBI, at the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder, after it was revealed that they had specifically and improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status from organizations associated with the nascent Tea Party movement.

Although we now know that the IRS actually targeted significantly more progressive and liberal organizations than Tea Party groups, conservatives in Congress and Tea Party supporters successfully convinced many in the mainstream media and the public that they were the victims of a political witch hunt and conspiracy. Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.00.06 AMOne of the IRS’s biggest critics was Cecil Cavanaugh of the Tea Party of Louisiana. “When you use the IRS in this fashion, you’re basically limiting free speech and that’s not good for any of us,” he told WBRZ of Baton Rouge, noting that his organization had not been targeted.

There is a good reason that the Tea Party of Louisiana (or TPoL) was never subjected to scrutiny by the IRS: Even though they could have, they never applied for tax exempt status under Section 501 of the tax code, which may seem ironic for an organization that, literally, stands for “Taxed Enough Already.”

Instead, way back in 2009 and like several similar groups across Louisiana and the country, the Tea Party of Louisiana incorporated as a Limited Liability Company (or LLC). There are many advantages to incorporating as an LLC, but it’s unusual for political committees and organizations that would (or should) otherwise be considered tax-exempt to forgo that exemption.

Cavanaugh, it’s worth noting, is an accountant with a Masters in Business Administration, and no doubt, he fully understood the trade-off here: The TPoL, which doesn’t raise much money anyway, may be on the hook for taxes, but as an LLC, they could avoid the scrutiny and annual reporting requirements demanded by the IRS of a 501(c)(4).

And in Louisiana, as in many states, LLCs can be considered “tax-exempt,” which may be how TPoL is organized. “For a limited liability company to be tax-exempt or ‘non engaged in for profit,’ it must be organized for a governmentally licensed profession.” Gulf Coast Hous. P’ship, Inc. v. Bureau of Treasury of City of New Orleans, 2013-0556 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/27/13), 129 So. 3d 817, 821 writ denied, 2013-3007 (La. 3/14/14), 134 So. 3d 1196.

In 2010, I asked Barry Hugghins about the organization’s status, and he said, “We are an LLC; we’re a non-profit, but contributions to our organization are not tax deductable (sic).”

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Let me be clear: There is nothing illegal about the Tea Party of Louisiana being incorporated as an LLC. They are under no obligation to incorporate, instead, as a tax-exempt organization under Section 501; if they elect to pay more taxes than they’d otherwise need to as a 501(c)(4), no one is going to stand in their way. If they were granted status as a non-profit LLC, that’s fine too, though I question their “governmentally licensed profession.”

But for the purposes of Louisiana law, the Tea Party of Louisiana should qualify under the definition of a “political committee,” and, therefore, they should be obligated to comply with state laws on campaign finance and disclosure.

As of this writing, the Tea Party of Louisiana is not listed by the Louisiana Ethics Administration as a political committee, and according to the Louisiana Secretary of State, the organization is “not in good standing” for failure to file an annual report.

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To be sure, I am not necessarily concerned with their failure to file an annual report; more than likely, it’s simply the result of overdue paperwork. However, I am concerned that the TPoL has failed to register as a political committee, and here’s why:

The Tea Party of Louisiana actively and purposefully attempts to influence elections and legislation. They endorse candidates. They regularly send out press releases. They lobby for and against bills in the legislature, though no one associated with their organization is registered as a lobbyist. 

It is worth noting that other Tea Party groups in Louisiana have registered as political committees, including the Baton Rouge Tea Party and the Tea Party PAC, but, arguably, neither of these organizations are as influential or as well-known as the Tea Party of Louisiana.

Last month, the TPoL made national news after it embarrassingly mistook a satirical article about Common Core “turning kids gay” as fact. Quoting from Raw Story:

The Tea Party of Louisiana used a phony news story to back its claim that Common Core had turned “thousands of children across the nation” into homosexuals.

The conservative group cited the story, “Common Core turns first wave of students gay,” on the satirical news site Broken World News to express “shock and outrage” that Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) had criticized Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to cancel Common Core standards testing and start over just before the school year began.

The Times-Picayune reported the TPoL’s statement as legitimate news, and it even drew a response from Vitter’s spokesman.

If you visit their website today, you’ll be greeted with a front-page endorsement of Lenar Whitney, a candidate for the Sixth Congressional District.

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Their website also includes an advertisement promoting Ted Cruz for President and donation button for FreedomWorks, the national Tea Party organization founded by multi-billionaire David Koch. But more importantly, at the very top of its site, TPoL prominently solicits donations for itself.

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And according to its website, this is the TPoL’s mission:

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So, how are they not a political committee? After all, they explicitly seek to influence campaigns and laws.

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I recently asked TPoL spokesman Barry Hugghins. “We’ve collected no funds,” he wrote. “We’ve sold nothing, nor have we received any contributions. Nor (have we) spent any money on any candidate, or on anything else, in this election cycle.”

There are a few problems with Mr. Hugghins’s response: First, because the organization isn’t registered as a political committee, there is no easy way to determine whether he’s telling the truth about donations. But much more importantly, the TPoL has spent money in this election cycle (and election cycle isn’t actually the right metric; the calendar year is): They spend money on hosting, designing, and operating their website, which is the communications, campaign, and political relations arm of their entire enterprise.

I asked Mr. Hugghins about the website and communication expenses, and he completely avoided answering the question, suggesting that I would never be satisfied with any answer he provided me.

But even if you believe that the TPoL’s abysmal fundraising efforts should disqualify them from compliance with Louisiana’s Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, consider that the law includes (emphasis mine):

Any Candidate or political committee who solicits or receives any contribution or makes any expenditure in support of, or opposition to, a proposition or question submitted to the voters if the aggregate amount of contributions or expenditures equals or exceeds $200. (R.S. 18:1486)

Well, we know for a fact that the TPoL solicits contributions. From their website:

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And as amateurish and awkward as their website may appear, we can also surmise that it cost more than $200 to put it all together and that it’s still costing them money, every month. It doesn’t matter if that money is being paid out of someone’s personal checking account or from the organization’s account; either way, it’s an expenditure or a donation.

Here’s how Louisiana defines “political committee” (emphasis mine):

“Political Committee” means two or more persons, other than a husband and wife, and any corporation organized for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing one or more candidates, political parties, propositions or recall efforts, which has financial activity in excess of $500 within a calendar year in the name of the committee.  It also includes any corporation or group that accepts payments for personal services related to an election or campaign in excess of $500 during a calendar year unless it has been permitted or licensed to provide that type of service and has been regularly doing so in the area at least 90 days prior to the services being rendered.

Contributions or expenditures cannot be made by a corporation, labor organization, or trade, business, or professional association unless specifically authorized by either (1) a vote of the board of directors or executive board, or (2) any person whom the board has specifically empowered to authorize such contributions or expenditures, or (3) a vote of the membership of the labor organization. Cash contributions in any amount by a corporation, labor organization, or trade, business or professional organization are prohibited.

I find it very hard to believe that the Tea Party of Louisiana, which solicits $5,000 donations on its homepage, is bankrupt and doesn’t even spend more than $500 a year. But if it’s true, then they aren’t really “The Tea Party of Louisiana;” they’re just a small group of friends living in Baton Rouge with a clever name who have been able to wield incredible influence because the media is lazy and doesn’t do its homework.

Regardless, these disclosure laws, or what is left of them in the aftermath of Citizens United, are still important.

In a democracy, voters deserve to know who and what are attempting to influence our elections, change our laws, and exert their own power.

CenLamar Pledge Drive: Buy My Loyalty

Eight years ago, when I started this little blog, I never imagined that it eventually would be read by over a million people, that it would be referenced in national and international media, or that it would be honored with the Ashley Morris Award at the annual Rising Tide conference.

Among other things, this little website has allowed me to sit on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and on the back of a Coast Guard helicopter in 2010, surveying the damage of the worst environmental disaster in American history. It’s provided me with the opportunity to talk about the legacy of slavery in the American South with BBC News and the life of Andrew Breitbart with ABC and Fox. But perhaps most importantly, it has connected me to an incredible, diverse, and fiercely dedicated network of writers, activists, advocates, intellectuals, and community leaders- young and old, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents- from all over Louisiana and the country.

During my first year as a blogger, I wrote almost exclusively about my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, and as fascinating as that subject often is, it’s not exactly something you can build a career out of as a blogger. To be sure, I’m still not sure you can really build a career simply as a blogger.

Since then, I have expanded my scope, but this has always been a labor of love- and not a business- for me. I’ve never attempted to monetize my website. I’ve never sold a single advertisement. I’ve never taken a dime from a political campaign.

But it’s true: Even a website like mine- which is free to you and presented without the annoying banner, pop-up, and video ads- isn’t free to me. It’s a commitment of time and energy, sure; I can deal with that. But it also requires real money for hosting, design, public records requests, IRS reports, ad blocking (yes, I pay to actually block ads), social media promotion (which works, trust me), and, because I’ve been away in law school for the last few years, occasionally, it requires travel expenses.

For the last week or so, I’ve been asking my friends and family on Facebook to consider making a donation to help me cover the costs of these expenses, and they have delivered. They’re awesome. But I still your help too.

If you are one of the next dozen people to donate $30 or more, I will send you this awesome tote bag- just like NPR does- as thanks for your donation. If I can get 25 more donors to pledge $30 or more, you’ll also get a tote bag- as thanks.

10406488_10100100077810091_4372667498100079411_nYou’ll need to register through PayPal to make a donation. If you’re one of the first dozen to donate $30 or more, I will contact you personally to confirm your shipping address, and this lovely bag will be on its way to you in a few short days. If you’re not one of the first dozen (and I hope you’re not, no offense), then you’ll be in the queue to receive a bag once I can fill an order for another 25 bags. And if you don’t want a bag, it’s cool. I will still take the donation. No worries.

One rule: I won’t accept any donations from political campaigns. Donating to my website should not be considered a campaign expense, ya’ heard?

Here’s the link:

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I guess I should remind folks: My first name is Frederick, so if you donate, that’s the name that will show up on your receipt.

PS: “Buy my loyalty” is a joke.

PPS: No it isn’t.

PPPS: No, seriously, it is.

Judge Feldman Writes The First Sentence Of His Obituary

In the summer of 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed a Tulane Law professor to serve as a Judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and although the professor’s credentials and his political persuasion were probably more than sufficient to convince Eisenhower and the Senate of his qualifications, his name, an almost perfect aptronym, probably helped too. Today, Judge John Minor Wisdom, who died in 1999 at the age of 93, is generally considered one of the most towering and influential figures in the history of Louisiana law. When he was well into his eighties, in 1993, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award, and a year later, the Fifth Circuit’s opulent headquarters (which, depending on who you ask, ranks as New Orleans’s first or second most beautiful office building, in a city that does not suffer from a lack of beautiful buildings) was named in his honor.

In the twilight years of his life, Judge Wisdom was showered with praise and gratitude by his country, not just for his decades of service on the bench but for his courageous and bold efforts at advancing civil rights in the American South. “He ordered integration at the University of Mississippi, joined decisions that eliminated racial discrimination in jury selection and voter registration in Louisiana, and wrote several decisions increasing the pace of school integration,” writes Dennis Persica of The Times-Picayune. These were not easy decisions, and they were not without personal risk. Wisdom’s home, Persica reports, “was the target of people virulently opposed to his rulings: Two of his dogs were poisoned, rattlesnakes were thrown into his yard, he got crank calls late at night.”

In the summer of 1957, John Minor Wisdom, the future civil rights pioneer, hired his very first law clerk to work alongside him in the Fifth Circuit, a student of his from Tulane Law, graduate of the class of 1957, a Jewish kid originally from St. Louis named Marty Feldman.  

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On Wednesday, Judge Martin “Marty” Feldman, former law clerk now of the Eastern District of Louisiana, handed down the most important decision of his long and distinguished career, a decision that will most assuredly define his legacy on the bench. But unlike his mentor, Judge Feldman, now eighty years old and now a Catholic, will not be remembered as a pioneer for the equal rights of all Americans. Fairly or not, he will be remembered for arguing that the United States Constitution allows Louisiana to discriminate against citizens on the basis of who they love.

To be sure, other federal judges have put forth the same argument. It’s a view shared by United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But Feldman’s opinion is notable because, in 2013, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Windsor that the federal government had no rational basis or compelling interest in denying benefits to married same sex couples, striking down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Since Windsor, every other federal and Circuit court in the nation has recognized that if the federal government does not have a “rational basis” in discriminating against married gay and lesbian couples, then, under the 14th Amendment, the states don’t either.

Yesterday, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit, a Reagan appointee and a man generally considered to be one of the country’s most brilliant and influential legal scholars, wrote the unanimous opinion in a case striking down the bans against gay marriage in Wisconsin and Indiana. Quoting The Washington Post (bold mine):

The unanimous decision issued by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals came just over a week after the court heard oral arguments in the two cases. Writing for the court, Judge Richard Posner said Indiana and Wisconsin “have given us no reason to think they have a ‘reasonable basis’ for forbidding same-sex marriage.”

 

“The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction — that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended — is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously,” Posner wrote.

Judge Feldman, however, took that rationale seriously, becoming the first in the nation to suggest, in the aftermath of Windsor, that a gay marriage ban is constitutional because Louisiana has a “rational basis” in ensuring that marriage is about procreation or, in his words, “linking children to an intact family formed by their two biological parents.” Of course, that’s not true; it shouldn’t even be taken seriously.

In Louisiana, convicted serial murderers on death row can marry one another in prison, as long as they’re straight. In Louisiana, a 95 year old man can marry an 18 year old girl. In Louisiana, a father of ten children from ten different women that he has married, used, and abused and who has never paid a dime in child support in his life can marry wife number eleven, no questions asked.

How?

Because marriage is a “fundamental right.” There’s nothing that the State of Louisiana can do to prohibit those marriagesbecause the Supreme Court has already ruled, over and over again, those marriages are protected. But so far, those cases have all involved opposite sex couples, and until the Court grants certiorari on a gay marriage case, states like Louisiana will continue to argue that there’s a distinction between granting a marriage license to two women with three adopted children who have been together for thirty years and two serial killers behind bars: The serial killers, hypothetically, could produce a biological baby together, and there’s nothing more important to the State of Louisiana than ensuring that baby has an “intact family formed by two biological parents.”   

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Gay marriage is controversial and remains unpopular in Louisiana, a state largely dominated by religious conservatives. 

In 1957, the year Judge Wisdom was appointed to the Fifth Circuit, school integration was controversial and unpopular. In 1960, an avowed segregationist mounted a serious campaign for the Governor’s office. White elected officials routinely purged the voting rolls of black voters without cause. Jimmie Davis won the 1960 campaign by aligning himself with white racists, and in his first year in office, he enacted a law that withheld welfare and social services for thousands of African-American children, not because they weren’t otherwise legitimately qualified but because they lived in single parent homes (usually with their mothers) and the State didn’t want to promote “living in sin.” It made international news.

Thirty one years later, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was the Republican nominee for Louisiana Governor. It, too, made international news. 

Our history is ugly and filled with examples of bigotry masquerading as good public policy. 

Let’s not be fooled or misled here: Louisiana’s gay marriage ban is merely the latest iteration of institutional discrimination, shamefully hiding behind the veneer of religion and morality and the fiction of “tradition.”

This discrimination has been largely championed by those whose own sense of human empathy and fundamental decency is constrained by their fearful, unquestioning allegiance to rigid orthodoxy. And it’s been enabled by members of the media and elected officials who know better but are paralyzed by their own fears of challenging anything that is popular, lest they lose readers or viewers or voters.

It is a shame to me that Judge Feldman, in the twilight years of his career, would not follow his mentor’s lead, because, in a way, he just wrote the first sentence of his own obituary. And the thing for which he will be most remembered isn’t for courageously standing up against a clearly discriminatory law; it’s for writing a sloppy decision based on bad logic to temporarily halt an inevitable, inexorable victory for equal rights in Louisiana and all across the country. It’s for being on the “wrong side of history.” 

In 1967, ten years after he was appointed to the Fifth Circuit, Judge Wisdom wrote the majority opinion in a case called US v. Jefferson County Board of Education. And in now famous passage, he wrote:

The Constitution is both color blind and color conscious. To avoid conflict with the equal protection clause, a classification that denies a benefit, causes harm, or imposes a burden must not be based on race. In that sense the Constitution is color blind. But the Constitution is color conscious to prevent discrimination being perpetuated and to undo the effects of past discrimination. The criterion is the relevancy of color to a legitimate government purpose.

Judge Feldman, who has been roundly ridiculed for beginning his opinion on the Louisiana gay marriage case by suggesting homosexuality was a “lifestyle choice” and for later comparing laws protecting same sex couples to laws protecting incest, should have sought the wisdom of Wisdom. In 1967, Judge Wisdom courageously reminded Southerners that they can’t use the Constitution to justify discriminating against people on the basis of race, and because they had done so in the past, it was now important to ensure that we “undo the effects of past discrimination.”

Wisdom’s legacy, however, is set in stone. In his book Champion of Civil Rights: Judge John Minor Wisdom, author Joel William Freedman writes about the outpouring of love and praise Wisdom received after he passed away in 1999. “On Saturday, May 15, 1999, just two days before his ninety-fourth birthday, John Minor Wisdom, the sole surviving member of “The Four” passed away. The death of this judicial giant generated more than a score of laudatory obituaries in media publications across the entire breadth of the country. One legal historian celebrated Wisdom as “the legal scholar who wrote opinion after opinion that desegregated courthouses throughout the Deep South and put blacks on juries, in the voting booth, in state legislatures and in integrated classrooms.”

Congressman John Lewis, according to Freedman’s book, said Judge Wisdom “represented a new breed of white judicial leadership, and he must be looked upon as a brave and courageous member of the bench who helped tear down the walls of segregation and the walls of racial discrimination. He represented the best the South had to offer.” 

I imagine that if he were alive today, Judge Wisdom would have told his former law clerk to stop making a mess, because it takes generations to clean up what a single judge can do in a single, sloppy opinion. 

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