Watchdog group wants probe of Focus on Family’s tax status

A liberal watchdog group is challenging Focus on the Family’s tax-exempt status, claiming founder James Dobson crossed clear IRS guidelines with his increased political involvement in recent years.

The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has sent a letter asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate and consider revoking the nonprofit corporation status of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Christian media empire.

The complaint focuses on Dobson’s work on behalf of several Republican candidates in 2004, including Rep. Patrick Toomey’s unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

Although Dobson has said he only acts as an individual when making endorsements, the complaint accuses him of using Focus on the Family resources for political activities. CREW said that makes Focus in violation of tax laws governing non-profit groups, which are prohibited from “electioneering” for or against candidates for public office.

Jim Bopp, an attorney for Focus on the Family, said Dobson has always acted within IRS guidelines by separating his activities from those of his organization.

Bopp dismissed CREW’s complaint as “just a lame effort by this organization to get publicity.”

CREW’s complaint challenges IRS Commissioner Mark Everson to give a conservative group as much scrutiny as it has to liberal-leaning groups. It cites recent investigations looking at the tax status of the NAACP and a California church, allegedly due to their leaders’ political rhetoric during the 2004 election.

“We’re not beating around the bush here. They’re going after liberal groups,” CREW spokeswoman Naomi Seligman said.

“The IRS is acting in a more politicized manner than at any time since the Nixon administration,” charged Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW.

IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis rejected the charge, saying political leanings play no role in deciding which complaints get investigated.

In 2004, she said, the agency’s non-profit task force launched investigations into complaints about 60 non-profit groups, including churches, that allegedly violated their tax status by electioneering for candidates.

“That included non-profits and churches of all political stripes,” Mathis said. By law, she said she was not able to discuss investigations into any specific taxpayers or groups.

Since Dobson founded Focus on the Family in California in 1977, he has played a mostly behind-the-scenes role trying to advance what he calls a Christian, pro-family social agenda.

For years, he rejected requests from Republican candidates seeking outright endorsements, once telling an interviewer: “You marry a politician, you can end up a widow the next four years. I would never do that.”

That changed prior to the 2004 election, when he was motivated by fights over public displays of the Ten Commandments, abortion and same-sex marriage, and took a more direct role, endorsing several candidates and participating in high-profile rallies.

Attempting to stay within the law, Focus on the Family formed a separate political arm, Focus on the Family Action, that could collect non-deductible donations to use in political causes. Bopp said he was hired to make sure they stay within the rules.

But Sloan said Dobson’s activities, before and after the political spin-off group was formed, violate the spirit and the letter of the IRS laws.

The complaint says that while Dobson often says he is acting as a private individual, “despite Mr. Dobson’s use of these ‘magic words,’ he was, in truth, capitalizing on his identification with Focus on the Family. Indeed, at times he used Focus on the Family resources for his political activities, giving the understandable perception that he was acting as chairman and founder of Focus on the Family.”

Bopp turned the tables on Sloan, pointing out her past work for Democratic congressmen, and saying she, like Dobson, would be permitted to take part in politics without affecting the tax status of her organization.

“Dr. Dobson has not used assets of Focus on the Family in any way” for political activities, Bopp said.

“Anyone can send a letter to the IRS,” he said. “Anyone can send out a press release about the letter. And that means nothing to the IRS.”

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