Hawaii Family Forum, a Christian group that has been one of the loudest voices against civil unions, must limit its lobbying activity to keep its tax-exempt, charitable status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Some observers contend the nonprofit group has already overstepped its bounds.
"They seem to be doing nothing but lobbying," said Hannah Miyamoto, an attorney with experience in nonprofit law who recently filed a complaint with the IRS. "It’s as though they looked at the law, saw what you’re not supposed to do and then went out and did exactly that."
Under federal tax law, Hawaii Family Forum may use no more than 20 percent of its overall expenditures on lobbying. That figure is based on its size and the fact that it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity and is exempt from income taxes and eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable donations.
"We try to be very careful because we have to stay within a certain percentage," said Executive Director Dennis Arakaki, who took over as lobbyist for Hawaii Family Forum last year.
Until last year the forum reported on its federal tax returns that it had spent virtually nothing on lobbying — $2,000 in 2007 and nothing in 2008. Instead the bulk of its money went to "community education" and "dissemination of educational materials": $67,800 in 2008 and $134,400 in 2007.
But things changed when the civil unions issue heated up at the Legislature and Arakaki took over the job. Hawaii Family Forum spent $74,000 on lobbying in 2009, mostly for media advertising, according to an expenditure report Arakaki filed with the state Ethics Commission. To justify that much lobbying, the forum would need to show overall expenses of $370,000 in 2009 — more than five times what it spent the previous year.
"Where is that 80 percent that they’re spending on charitable purposes?" asked Miyamoto. "They would have to be one of the most prominent charitable organizations in the state if they were devoting that much, and they’re not."
Hawaii Family Forum has not yet filed its federal tax return for 2009, so its overall spending figure is not yet public, and the organization declined to disclose the amount to the Star-Advertiser. The tax form was due May 17, but the organization has requested and received an extension from the IRS.
If the nonprofit exceeded the 20 percent limit on lobbying expenses, it could be forced to pay a substantial excise tax, and it could lose its tax-exempt status if overspending on lobbying persists.
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. The IRS defines lobbying as advocating the adoption or rejection of legislation, or contacting or urging the public to contact lawmakers or their employees to propose, support or oppose legislation.
"Sometimes it’s a matter of interpretation," said Arakaki, a former legislator. "We’re told any time we try to influence a legislator or the governor, it is lobbying."
In its brochure, Hawaii Family Forum says it is actively involved in public policy concerns, from same-sex marriage to gambling. Established in 1998, the forum takes credit for educating voters about the implications of the constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. Since 2001 it has worked to block civil unions.
The brochure notes that in 2003 the forum "established an official partnership with the Hawaii Catholic Conference to lobby on behalf of the Diocese of Honolulu." Arakaki is lobbyist for both entities. He said Hawaii Family Forum does engage in education, not simply lobbying.
"We have a program that we provide churches with training and workshops on the legislative process and community involvement," Arakaki said. "We also have a campaign for voter registration and also things like census education. They are all educational activities."
In an era of Internet-based advocacy, tracking lobbying expenses is tougher than it was when printing and postage costs left a clear trail. Hawaii Family Forum frequently uses e-mail alerts to mobilize its members. It regularly urged them to tell their lawmakers to vote down House Bill 444, the civil unions legislation that would extend the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
In January the group organized a rally by thousands of people at the Capitol to promote "traditional family values" and oppose civil unions. In its Ethics Commission disclosures, the nonprofit reported spending $6,790 on lobbying, none of it for advertising, from January through April of this year. Arakaki said the Hawaii Catholic Conference paid for media ads, as disclosed in his Ethics Commission filing for the church.
Meanwhile, Focus on the Family Action, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., reported giving Hawaii Family Forum $7,500 for lobbying in January and February of this year. The advocacy group donated the money to the forum for a "consolidated media campaign," according to Sonja Swiatkiewicz, its senior director for issues response. Her group also contributed $20,000 to Hawaii Family Forum last year for radio advertising.
"We gave the money to Hawaii Family Forum to make the media buys," Swiatkiewicz said. "We were supporting their effort to protect marriage from being devalued through civil unions."
Focus on the Family Action may make unlimited lobbying expenditures because it is a social welfare organization, a 501(c)(4) under the federal tax code, not a charitable or educational 501(c)(3) organization like Hawaii Family Forum. Donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax-deductible, unlike charitable contributions.
The major players on the other side of the debate over civil unions — Equality Hawaii and the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign — are also 501(c)(4)s, allowed unlimited lobbying expenditures.
Equality Hawaii reported spending $11,150 on lobbying last year, mostly on newspaper and radio advertising in support of civil unions. In the first four months of this year, it spent $4,640 on lobbying. Human Rights Campaign spent $5,900 on lobbying in 2009 and $16,480 in the first two months of this year, mostly in compensation for its lobbyists.
Another advocacy group, Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, is a loose affiliation of volunteers that does not raise or spend money, according to its vice president, Michael Golojuch Jr.
"If we do spend money, it comes out of our own pockets," he said. "Mostly we do our work electronically."
Acting as a private citizen, Golojuch filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission on May 4, alleging that Hawaii Family Forum was understating its lobbying expenses, including Arakaki’s salary. On May 20 and 24, Arakaki amended his 2009 and 2010 ethics filings to include his salary in reports where it had been missing. He received $10,000 in compensation from Hawaii Family Forum last year.
Civil unions advocate Miyamoto, who is pursuing a doctorate in sociology at the University of Hawaii, said she just wants everyone to play by the same rules on public policy debates and not have some advocates enjoy tax breaks while others do not.
"This is not a question of religious persecution," Miyamoto said. "Nobody is attacking Hawaii Family Forum because of their faith. This is insisting that democracy depends on an even playing field, where both sides are not able to use tax-deductible donations."
"That’s what Jesus meant by ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,’" she added. "You have to follow the law. You have to pay your taxes, and you have to know the difference between the obligations to your government and your obligations to God."