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Friday, September 19, 2014         

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Christian group required to pay taxes for lobbying

In opposing civil unions, Hawaii Family Forum exceeded limits on political spending

By Susan Essoyan

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Hawaii Family Forum, a Christian charity that helped lead the fight against civil unions, spent so much money politicking last year that it had to pay the IRS $20,741 in taxes for its "excessive lobbying," according to its latest tax return.

The nonprofit group reported spending $125,695 on lobbying last year, a huge jump over the zero dollars it said it spent on lobbying in 2008. The change comes after at least two complaints were filed with the Internal Revenue Service about the forum's extensive political activities.

"This tax form just confirms what we had suspected, and that is that they engaged in excessive lobbying, that they have no charitable programs, that they are 100 percent a lobbying organization," said Holly Huber, who filed a complaint with the IRS in June on behalf of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church. "They should not be a tax-exempt nonprofit charitable organization. They are a political action group."

Francis Oda, president of Hawaii Family Forum, and James Hochberg, an attorney for the nonprofit, did not return calls yesterday afternoon for comment on the tax return. In June, Hochberg told the Star-Advertiser that "Hawaii Family Forum categorically denies the allegations of the complaint and affirms that Hawaii Family Forum has operated within tax-exempt guidelines."

The group's 2009 federal tax return was due May 17, but the organization requested an extension. The return was filed on Tuesday, and a copy was sent by certified mail yesterday to Huber in connection with her IRS complaint.

As a charitable 501(c)(3) nonprofit recognized by the IRS, Hawaii Family Forum may receive tax-deductible donations and is normally exempt from paying income taxes.

Such charities may not endorse political candidates and they must limit their lobbying. Charities the size of the forum may use no more than 20 percent of their overall expenditures for lobbying.

Hawaii Family Forum's 2009 tax return shows that more than half of its spending went to lobbying: $68,139 in lobbying to influence public opinion and $57,556 in direct lobbying, for a total of $125,695. The group reported spending $87,955 for other purposes.

On its tax form, the nonprofit is asked to "describe its achievements for each of the organization's three largest program services." Its response simply listed "community educational events" and "dissemination of educational material" and said it had spent $92,208 on each of those activities.

Hugh Jones, supervising deputy attorney general for the state, said it is rare for a charitable organization to face taxes for lobbying, because charities that choose to lobby usually elect to file a special federal form and stay within prescribed limits.

"Because of the safe harbor provisions of the federal tax law, incurring a tax on lobbying expenses is an unusual event for charities," Jones said yesterday. "I personally am not aware of another case in Hawaii, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened."

The lobbying expenditures Hawaii Family Forum reported to the IRS for 2009 are significantly higher than what it had reported earlier to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission for that year. It told the commission it had spent $74,000 on lobbying in 2009, mostly for media advertising.

At the Ethics Commission, Susan Yoza, interim executive director, said she couldn't comment on individual cases, but said that filing a lobbying report with false information or material omission could lead to charge proceedings by the commission and administrative fines of up to $500 per violation. Huber has also filed a formal complaint with the Ethics Commission about Hawaii Family Forum.

On its federal tax return, the forum defines its mission as "to identify, develop and support policies and programs that will ensure the preservation and strengthening of traditional Judeo-Christian family values." Its website includes numerous legislative alerts and calls to action, urging members to testify on bills, contact legislators to urge specific votes on various issues, and rally at the Capitol. That has been the case for several years.

Charities are free to educate people on public policy issues, but when they push for action by lawmakers on specific legislation, they cross the line into lobbying. Hannah Miyamoto, who in May filed a complaint with the IRS about Hawaii Family Forum, said "they seem to be doing nothing but lobbying."

On its 2009 tax return, the forum reported receiving $337,122 in contributions and grants, and spending a total of $213,650, for a balance of $149,007. One whopping donation was a non-cash contribution valued at $136,410, which was described as 27,828 "decorative designer sleeves" received on Dec. 26, 2009. The $20,741 tax the forum paid for 2009 represented 25 percent of its taxable lobbying expenses.

In 2008, its tax return reported no lobbying expenses. Its "End of Session Report" to members, however, said: "2008 was a very successful legislative session for the Hawaii Family Forum." It listed 19 bills along with copies of the forum's testimony.






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