There is a reason why some organizations are granted nonprofit status. They are tax-exempt because they exist for certain reasons which are recognized by law. In order to get and retain that status, nonprofits have to have bylaws which state that they will not engage in political activity. When they file their nonprofit application with the IRS they must reconfirm in that application that they will not engage in political activity.
Is it stated on the IRS website, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
In June of this year, I filed formal complaints with both the Internal Revenue Service and the Alabama Attorney General's office regarding impermissible political behavior on behalf of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. The basis for my complaint was fairy simple. In 2017 a website was published by an organization calling itself the Alabama Puppy Mill Project ("APMP"). The stated of intent of the organization was to promote legislation to end mistreatment of dogs in "puppy mills" in Alabama. The website was replete with references to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and openly talked about the relationship between the Greater Birmingham Humane and the APMP. The address for the APMP was the same as for the GHBS. The email address for the APMP was a GBHS email address. Although the names of the individuals behind the APMP are not on the website or Facebook page, my impression was then, and still is now, that the APMP is essentially Allison Black Cornelius (who is the CEO of GBHS), an attorney named Angie Hubbard Ingram and members of a rescue group which was up until recently called Cavalier Rescue of Alabama (and now operates as The Cavalier Rescue). The activities of some individuals associated with what is now doing business as The Cavalier Rescue were covered in an investigative article in the Washington Post which exposed the fact that some rescuers buy dogs at auctions and have spent large sums of money to do so. For me, the behavior of the APMP is imputed to the GBHS.
Because I lead an advocacy coalition which includes members who run non-profit organizations, I understand that there is often a fine line between a coalition and the people that make up the coalition. People who lead non-profit organizations are allowed to have personal opinions about political candidates; they just have to be very careful to keep their personal opinions from being interpreted as the opinions of the nonprofit. In order to eliminate any perception of impermissible political behavior, we never tell people who they should vote for. We do tell people the position of candidates on our issue, encourage them to research candidates and encourage them to vote.
When I first saw the APMP website and all the references to GBHS, I didn't think much about it or act on it because the primary purpose of APMP was to advance legislation. I also knew that the GBHS had filed an exception with the IRS to be able to be engaged in lobbying activity. I am not and have never been a fan of the GBHS. This is a huge nonprofit organization which operates with millions of dollars and which has historically had a dismal live release rate. When the APMP brought a “puppy mill” bill in 2017, I did not support the bill. I felt it was way too ambitious. It would have created a new state agency in Alabama which would have required funding in a state which has historically not done a great job of funding education. Beyond that initial hurdle, I just wasn't sure how much good the bill would actually do. It focused very much on licensing and I was left wondering who would enforce it. My thought was that a lot of small time, backyard breeders, who might not be treating dogs well, would simply ignore the law and not comply with it. I didn't state a public position on the bill and I simply stayed out of the way.
As I expected, the bill advanced by the APMP in 2017 failed. It appears that someone led the members of the APMP to believe the bill would make it out of committee; I'm not sure who. In the wake of the bill failure the members of the APMP behaved in ways which I found both extraordinarily unprofessional and embarrassing even though I had nothing to do with the behavior. Rather than simply lament the fact that the bill didn't pass and work to communicate with the senators who did not vote for the bill in committee - toward doing a better job in the future - the women behind the bill went on what I can best describe as a rampage. There was a press conference held in the lobby of the GBHS. People were encouraged to send emails to the senators which I'm told by the senators were juvenile and hostile. One senator told me this: "Unfortunately, those who try to intimidate and vilify end up losing respect and the option to even discuss important issues. My door has always been open to those who want to openly discuss issues in a professional manner." I also saw a number of posters which I thought were incredibly unhelpful towards gaining cooperation from legislators moving forward.
What led me to file complaints with both the IRS and the Alabama Attorney General's office was the fact that the APMP then began engaging in political behavior on its Facebook page. During the primary election in Alabama earlier this year, the page was very vocal that people should support one candidate to the exclusion of the other candidate (the image at this link is just one of many posts about candidates and who to vote for). At the time that this was going on the APMP website was still replete with references to GBHS. The About page talked all about GBHS. The address was the same as for the GHBS. The email address was the same as for GBHS. The candidate promoted by the APMP prevailed over a long-standing incumbent. We will never know if the voting was influenced by endorsement of one candidate over the other. What we do know is that this was political behavior which is considered impermssible behavior by nonprofit organizations.
I have not heard from the IRS about the status of my complaint. That is not surprising because I'm sure they get hundreds of thousands of complaints every year. When you file a complaint with the IRS you are told that you will not be notified of the outcome of the complaint.
The process with the Alabama Attorney General's office is different. I received an initial letter saying that my complaint was being processed. I was also informed that the organization against which I had filed my complaint would be given an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
After I filed my complaints the APMP website was scrubbed of references to the GBHS. The About page is gone as is any other reference to the GBHS. The Facebook page for the APMP has not changed much. There is still a lot of content tied to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and I presume that will not change.
I received a letter from the Attorney General's office yesterday which states the following:
This office has received no additional communication pertaining to your complaint against the above reference company or individual. Because the individual / company has obviously indicated an unwillingness to cooperate with this office and its role as a mediator, the Attorney General does not have authority to pursue this matter further. It is suggested that you may want to consult an attorney or considering filing a complaint in small claims court. I am sorry that due to the nature of this matter we cannot be of further assistance. (emphasis added).
If nonprofits want to promote or support legislation, I have no issue with that. If individuals want to support or promote legislation, I encourage that. What I take issue with is a nonprofit organization which tells people who to vote for and who to vote against. In this case, the least the Greater Birmingham Humane Society could and should have done was to respond to the request for input from the Alabama Attorney General's office to show transparency and to defend its behavior. The fact that the APMP website was scrubbed to remove references to the GBHS speaks for itself. Considering the terrible live release rate at GBHS, I would like to think that focusing on saving lives of animals entrusted to the organization's care would be a top priority and that focusing on legislation would be of secondary importance.
I am told the Alabama Puppy Mill Project plans to bring its 2017 bill again in 2019 with some minor revisions. I will again not have a position on the bill. I have one of my own I am advancing which may do some good. Time will tell.
NOTE: On the day I published this blog, I received an email from The Cavalier Rescue, Inc. asking me to change my wording related to the name of the organization and disputing my characterization that the group had been "outed" in the Washington Post article about rescues buying dogs at auction. I modified my paragraph above which references this group to which I had made only a passing reference. I have been in conflict with the people in the group for some time; we will never agree that buying dogs at auction for whatever it takes is rescue. It is a purchase and it is worse than buying a dog in a pet store - something we tell the public to never, ever do. The email exchange with the group is here. I chose to not respond to the last email to me. It would have served no purpose.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson