Call In The Lawyers
Donald Trump Allies Push Legal Limits in Building the ‘ACORN of the Right’
Can a group tasked with voter registration and staffed with operatives tied to the president maintain its nonpartisan status?
A new group with strong ties to the Trump administration is pushing the legal envelope in its efforts to register voters in Trump country.
The organization, Look Ahead America (LAA), has already drawn the attention of legal experts, who have questioned whether it should be given preferential tax-exempt status reserved for apolitical organizations. LAA has been classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit since its launch announcement last week and is being billed as an “ACORN of the right,” a reference to the defunct left-wing community organizing group. Like ACORN, it is legally required to remain nonpartisan.
But critics view the organization as a political arm for the White House. On Monday, a LAA spokesman said that its tax-exempt status is currently pending. After The Daily Beast inquired about that status, LAA removed a solicitation from its website asking for “a tax-deductible contribution,” further drawing the attention of its critics.
“Look Ahead America may not cross a line but they’re going to walk right up to it,” Austin Evers, executive director of the watchdog group American Oversight, said in an interview.
LAA insists that language regarding tax-deductions was removed not because it was legally out of bounds, but in order to avoid confusion about its tax status. It’s not actively courting donors through its website anyway, said Matthew Braynard, its executive director. “We’ve raised exactly zero so far through the site,” Braynard told The Daily Beast. “We’re 100 percent collecting and pitching large dollar right now.”
Still, the subtle change in the language of its financial solicitations highlights the tightrope the group is already having to walk in order to remain on the right side of federal tax laws.
The newly formed organization seeks to register voters in parts of the country that supported President Donald Trump last year. To do so, The New York Times reported last week, it will engage in what it calls “psychographic modeling,” using commercial and government data to target potential voters who are likely to support candidates more amenable to its political and ideological preferences.
LAA also told the Times that it will deploy poll-watchers with cameras to monitor polling places to discourage illegal or fraudulent voting. The group plans to roll out a “pilot program” in Virginia this year ahead of the state’s 2017 gubernatorial election.
As a 501(c)(3), LAA’s activities will have to remain strictly nonpartisan. But its roots and current structure make it vulnerable to charges that it’s doing the president’s bidding. The group was founded by a pair of former Trump campaign staffers, and its staff is comprised entirely of former Trump campaign operatives. Braynard ran data operations early on in the campaign. Witold Chrabaszcz, the group’s strategy director, also helped run the campaign’s data efforts. According to its website, LAA’s advisory board “is comprised of nearly forty former Trump for President Campaign staffers.”
Apolitical nonprofits are legally permitted to register voters and encourage them to turn out on Election Day. But the Internal Revenue Service strictly forbids any effort to selectively register or turn them out in a way that benefits a certain candidate or political party.
LAA insists its activity will fall within those legal bounds. “Our targeting is not based on political party affiliation or to benefit any particular candidate,” the group said in documents reported by the Times.
But according to Evers, initial descriptions of LAA’s work suggest it will push the envelope of permitted activity. “A (c)(3) organization can violate those rules without saying the name of a candidate, without saying the word Republican, without saying the word Democrat,” Evers said. “Based on how the organization has presented itself to the media, they are going to have to be very careful about how they execute their mission.”
For Evers and others scrutinizing legal issues surrounding LAA, the issue is how specific the group will get in its voter targeting. If it eyes certain neighborhoods or precincts, even ones that lean heavily toward Trump or other Republicans, it will likely be legally safe as long as it doesn’t do so with an eye toward advantaging a certain candidate or political party. But if it gets more specific, targeting individual voters based on their presumed candidate preferences, the group could face pushback.
“The fact that Look Ahead America is staffed by former Trump campaign staffers and fundraising from Trump donors—and apparently targeting potential Trump voters—may cause the IRS to take a careful look at the group’s activities,” according to Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and Federal Election Commission reform efforts at the Campaign Legal Center, another watchdog group. “So Look Ahead America will have to tread carefully to avoid violating the law.”
LAA is already working with an attorney and has applied for tax-exempt status, Braynard told The Daily Beast. He expects that it will be approved in due course.
But that wasn’t the impression that the group gave after its official launch last week. LAA’s official Twitter account repeatedly invoked its tax status in tweets directed at Huffington Post reporters who wrote about the group.
“We’re a fully accountable 501c3,” the group wrote, “not a ‘scam pac.’”