TAKING A DISCLAIMER
There’s nothing like a few glowing testimonials from high-profile friends to boost a political neophyte’s credibility. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to tack a few recognizable names or organizations onto your campaign lit.
Ward 3 council hopeful Mary Cheh has some sweet endorsements on her literature and a mailing that she figures ended up in the hands of about 15,000 residents.
Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, says she admires Cheh’s “fierce dedication to fairness, equal rights, and civil liberties.” Cheh is called “a phenomenal friend of animals and all who love and care for them,” by Washington Humane Society Executive Director Howard Nelson. Renee DeVigne, one of the deans of George Washington University Law School, where Cheh teaches, says that “[s]tudents love professor Cheh...because she inspires them to care about their community.”
These community leaders have something in common beyond their praise for Cheh: They all work for nonprofit organizations barred by the Internal Revenue Service from involvement in partisan political activities.
Cheh appears to have overlooked that part of the IRS code. She not only included approved accolades from friends on her mailing but also listed their titles and organizations. Her lit did not include a disclaimer distancing those quoted from their organizations.
Nelson, who says he hasn’t seen the literature, calls the naming of his organization an error. “It certainly was not authorized.” He characterized his endorsement as “a personal quote. It actually has nothing to do with the Washington Humane Society or my role at WHS.” Nelson seems to have a good grasp of the IRS code. “We are a 501(c)(3), and we never participate in any political campaigns.” He’s e-mailed Cheh asking her to “remove the quote or subtext it, like on her Web site.”
It’s a little too late for adding disclaimers, unless he expects Cheh to go rooting through every mailbox from Cleveland Park to Palisades.
It’s not as if Cheh didn’t know that the use of the quotes with organizations needed to be explained to protect her friends from IRS scrutiny. All the statements were approved, but below all the quotes on her Web site, Cheh gives the reader this message: “(*Affiliations are listed for informational purposes only.)”
Cheh would have been wise to take a peak at the Alliance for Justice Web site. The group’s nonprofit advocacy project is designed to give tax-exempt organizations “a better understanding of the laws that govern their participation in the policy process.” It even includes a little fact sheet. Check item No. 1 under how an organization can protect itself from violating the laws governing political activity: “Requir[e] officers…acting as individuals engaged in partisan political activity to clearly state that they are acting in their individual capacity, not on behalf of the organization…”
After the Cheh campaign was contacted by the Washington City Paper, this message was posted on her Web site:
“A recent mailing from my campaign included quotes from people who were identified with their institutional affiliations. There was no attempt to suggest that these were endorsements from the institutions themselves. But since there was no specific disclaimer, the reference to designations could have left that impression with someone. I regret that, although, again, this was not the intent nor do I think anyone would reasonably believe that the designations were anything more than information identifying who was making the statement. To avoid even possible ambiguity, all future mailings will have specific disclaimers.”
Cheh might have been surprised that any reasonable person might see the endorsements as, well, endorsements, but she was quick to lay blame on her own campaign. “I screwed up, what can I say?”
• Ward 3 contender Sam Brooks is all about being different. He’s young, new to the ward, full of new ideas, and now certainly a new kind of Democrat who doesn’t mind pissing off the unions. Brooks is the first candidate in the race to benefit from an independent expenditure from a political action committee openly hostile to labor. Red, white, and blue fliers that look strangely similar to Brooks’ own campaign lit have been distributed around the ward carrying the disclaimer: “Paid for by Citizens for Empowerment PAC.”
The PAC is funded by gigantic concrete maker Miller & Long and electrical contractor MC Dean. Both companies are open shops and help fund the political opposition to the city’s stadium-project labor agreement, which gave preference for construction contracts to union companies.
The flier is pretty standard fare and carries Brooks’ signature “new” ideas of creating a commission on school closings and splitting Emergency Medical Services from the fire department. But a new bullet point is tacked onto the end: “Fair and Open Bidding: allowing union and nonunion companies the same rights to compete for construction work.”
Brooks says he had no idea the mailing was about to hit the streets. He did meet with the PAC board along with several other Ward 3 candidates.