Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said he was “stunned” that the IRS investigated his organization in 2008, charging that the Democrat-leaning group Catholics United filed the complaint and used it to argue that CNN should drop him as a commentator.
“This was a fishing expedition meant to intimidate me and create a chilling effect on my freedom of speech,” Donohue said.
“I still couldn’t believe that a couple of weeks after the election, I was being asked to spend my entire Thanksgiving trying to defend the Catholic League about something which we’re not guilty of,” Donohue told CNA May 17.
“We don’t give money. We don’t do endorsements. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Democrat,” he said. “Of course I address the issues. That’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s my freedom of speech.”
Donohue recounted the inquiry in a May 16 essay for Newsmax. He said that Catholics United’s lawyers sent a June 5, 2008 letter to Marsha Ramirez, the Internal Revenue Service’s Director of Exempt Organizations Examinations, and to Lois G. Lerner, director of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division. The letter asked the IRS to question the sources of the Catholic League’s new funding.
Donohue said the Catholics United complaint was leaked to him by a CNN employee in October 2008. “It was miraculously almost the same document that I got a month later from the IRS,” Donohue told CNA.
On Nov. 24, 2008, the IRS sent the Catholic League a letter notifying the Catholic League that it was under investigation for possibly violating IRS rules on political activities for 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations. The letter included news releases and articles Donohue had written about the presidential campaign.
Donohue said that Catholics United used its own complaint as evidence in its push to remove him from television.
In October 2008, Donohue criticized Catholics United and its allied organizations, saying they are backed by organizations funded by the Democrat-leaning billionaire George Soros. CNN invited Donohue to go on air as a commentator, but Catholics United’s then-executive director Chris Korzen lobbied the news channel to rescind the invitation, Donohue said.
Catholics United asked CNN to drop the Donohue interview or put on Alexia Kelley, then-executive director of its allied group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Catholics United sent CNN its complaint to the IRS, arguing that the Catholic League was not a legitimate Catholic organization.
“It wasn’t good enough just to get the Catholic League involved with the IRS. They tried to deny me to get on television,” Donohue told CNA. “It shows you the kind of ruthlessness we have come to expect from the Catholic left.”
The IRS ruled that the Catholic League had “intervened in a political campaign” but in a way that did not threaten its tax exempt status because the violation was “unintentional, isolated, non-egregious and non-recurring.”
Donohue said he rejected the charge. The Catholic League is not the only critic of Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to have faced an IRS inquiry.
Anne Hendershott, a sociology professor and Catholic writer, has said IRS officials in a 2010 audit inquired about her writings for The Catholic Advocate, many of which were critical of President Obama’s health care legislation and groups like Catholics United which supported it.
IRS employees questioned her about who paid for her writings. She feared the audit was politically motivated and she became less likely to criticize the administration in writing.
Donohue said Catholics United and similar groups have their roots in the 2004 election when “values voters” helped President George W. Bush win the election. He charged that they are “faux organizations” set up to compete with the Catholic League and other groups by those on the political left.
He said he kept quiet about the IRS inquiry into the Catholic League to avoid “any extra grief from anybody.”
“I’ve been in the news all the time. You have to take your lumps like anybody else. I thought this was below the belt, and so I held on to everything.
“I have all the evidence. I’ve kept it all. This is not hearsay.”
The IRS faces accusations of excessively burdening tax exempt status applications from both Republican-leaning tea party groups and pro-life organizations. An IRS employee may have leaked to the press and to “gay marriage” advocates a confidential document from the National Organization for Marriage.
Some accusers charge that the agency’s actions are evidence of politically motivated corruption.
“Now I know why they went after me. I know about the politics of the whole game,” Donohue said. “When the issue became big over the past week, I thought the time had come to make a revelatory statement.”
Catholics United has backed the Obama administration in many areas where its policies diverge from Catholic teaching, including the religious freedom controversy over the HHS mandate. It has defended the appointment of pro-abortion rights Catholic HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and it is increasingly hostile to defenders of traditional marriage.
Ahead of the November 2012 elections, Catholics United wrote Florida Catholic priests saying it was monitoring illegal political activity in church.
In an Oct. 22, 2012 letter to Florida pastors, Catholics United executive director James Salt criticized “numerous IRS violations” in local Catholic parishes such as partisan references during homilies, political endorsements in church bulletins, and distribution of partisan literature in church parking lots.
“To help prevent the misuse of Catholic parishes for partisan activity, Catholics United has retained a law firm to help protect you and your parish community from losing your 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status,” Salt said. “We have also recruited a network of local volunteers to monitor parishes and document the nature of all partisan activity taking place there.”
Salt’s letter asked pastors to “protect your parish from losing its tax-exempt status” by taking a pledge. He said this would demonstrate pastors’ commitment to “keep partisan politics out of the pulpit” and help ensure their parish is free from “any illegal political activity.”
Catholics United has recently added its voice to the complaints against the IRS. On May 15 the group said that its affiliate the Catholics United Education Fund also suffered from long delays in IRS approval of its tax-exempt status application, which it initiated in 2010.
In 2011, the education fund received a $116,000 grant from the San Francisco-based The Energy Foundation to recruit Catholic clergy in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority. The grant made up all but $200 of the organization’s 2011 budget, tax forms and grant announcements indicate.