A nonprofit group run by an Obama administration appointee and funded in part by federal taxpayers may have violated federal law by supporting Democratic mayoral candidates in California, according to a legal complaint filed this week.
The California-based Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) was paid tens of thousands of dollars for services in support of two San Diego mayoral candidates, public records show. But the group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which is legally prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for public office.
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Cause of Action, a conservative legal watchdog, filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service on Friday asking the agency to investigate EHC’s tax status.
Community organizer Diane Takvorian is EHC’s founder and executive director. President Barack Obama tapped her in 2009 for a position on the Joint Public Advisory Committee for the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation. She also served in the Clinton administration.
Takvorian also runs a sister 501(c)(4) organization called the Environmental Health and Justice Campaign (EHJC), which shares an address and at least six staffers, including Takvorian, with EHC.
The EHJC is more explicitly involve in electoral politics. It endorsed Democrat Bob Filner for reelection as mayor of San Diego and formed the Environmental Health and Justice Campaign Fund to back his candidacy.
That group paid EHC nearly $22,000 for "campaign workers salary to support Bob Filner," according to filings with California’s secretary of state.
Filner won reelection. EHJC celebrated their "victory" on their website, and Takvorian posted a photo with the mayor on her Facebook page.
The following year, Filner was forced to resign after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. He later pled guilty to charges of sexual battery and false imprisonment.
In advance of the November 2013 special election to replace him, EHJC established another political group to back Democrat David Alvarez’s mayoral bid.
Alvarez eventually lost to Republican Kevin Faulconer, but not before the Environmental Health and Justice Campaign Fund paid EHC nearly $16,000 for similar activities, including wages for campaign workers.
EHC and EHJC have significant staff overlap, including Takavorian, who serves as executive director for both, and Beatriz Barraza, who sits on EHC’s board and chairs EHJC’s. Both endorsed Alvarez’s mayoral bid.
The payments to EHC continued in 2014 ahead of a February runoff election. According to campaign finance filings, EHJC’s political committee paid $12,500 to EHC for the same types of campaign-related activities in January and February.
According to the IRS, 501(c)(3) groups 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."
"The documents suggest that EHC was paid for various activities on behalf of the political campaigns of Bob Filner and David Alvarez," Cause of Action wrote in its complaint. "Moreover, EHC’s support in favor of these candidates was public and open."
"Given the above, we believe that EHC’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status should be audited or investigated," the group told IRS.
EHJC has previously faced IRS scrutiny and punitive action. Its nonprofit status was revoked in 2010 after it failed to file its form 990, required of all nonprofit groups, for three consecutive years.
Cause of Action’s complaint could attract additional scrutiny given past payments by federal agencies to EHC for consulting and advisory work.
According to federal spending database USASpending.gov, EHC has received $350,000 in grants from the Environmental Protection Agency since just last year.