A tax-exempt charitable organization co-founded by Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo has been promoting her campaign for City Council on its website, prompting other candidates in the race to cry foul.
"It’s a matter of her campaigning illegally against the nine of us," said Bob Vieira, one of 10 people running in downtown District VI, which stretches from Kalihi Street to Makiki. "It’s not a level playing field."
The nonprofit Stand Up for America was founded by Tamayo and her father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to promote patriotism and America’s unity as "one nation under God." It is exempt from paying income taxes and may receive tax-deductible contributions as a charitable organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service code.
Such nonprofits may not endorse political candidates. Since mid-July, Stand Up For America’s website has featured a news release from the Tamayo campaign announcing her candidacy, highlighting her "record of proven leadership," and including quotations from Tamayo and a link to VoteTulsi.com, her campaign website.
Tamayo is vice president of the nonprofit and her father is its president. Contacted Friday, Tamayo said she didn’t realize the news release and campaign link were on the nonprofit’s website.
"It was an honest mistake from a volunteer," Tamayo said. "I’m very, very sensitive to the perception of impropriety. I wasn’t aware that the press release was posted on there. I need to talk to the volunteer who helped with the website and we’ll get that corrected immediately.
"I hadn’t been to our Stand Up for America website recently so I didn’t know that that was up there," added Tamayo, a former state legislator who represented Waipahu and Ewa.
As of yesterday the site no longer included the news release and link.
Hugh Jones, supervising deputy attorney general, said he could not comment on this specific case, but the law is clear.
"The federal tax laws contain an absolute prohibition on a charity directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective office," he said. "Charities that do become embroiled in political activity threaten their tax-exempt status."
Michael Lilly, former Hawaii attorney general and chairman of Vieira’s campaign for Council, said he had alerted the attorney general and "I’m going to make sure the IRS knows" because he believes the organization has been circumventing tax law.
"Wouldn’t it be nice if anybody could set up their own tax-free organization and then use that to support their political campaigns? But that’s totally improper under the IRS code," Lilly said.
Earlier this week, Hawaii Citizens for Separation of State and Church filed a complaint with the IRS regarding electioneering by Stand Up for America.
In its latest IRS tax filing, a short form, Stand Up for America reported receiving less than $25,000 in 2009. The most recent event held by the organization, according to its website, was a parenting seminar by John Rosemond in 2007.
Tamayo stressed that she is not paid by Stand Up for America, and "there’s absolutely no mixing between the nonprofit work that I do within the community and any kind of self-promotion or anything even remotely related to the campaign at all, financially or otherwise."
Sesnita Moepono, another candidate in the Council race, said she was taken aback by Stand Up for America’s public support for Tamayo’s campaign.
"I certainly question their judgment," Moepono said. "It’s definitely not an appropriate thing to do. You should be knowledgeable, especially when you’re running for office. As a lawyer, I always tell my clients, there’s one particular agency you don’t want to get on the bad side of and that’s the IRS."