CCV Under Investigation For Election Law Violations

COLUMBUS, Oh. - The problem with doing God's work is that sometimes you have to break temporal (earthly) law to do it – and oddly enough, that's what Citizens For Community Values (CCV) and its sister organization, Citizens for Community Values Action (CCV Action), have been accused of doing in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election.

CCV and its president, Phil Burress, are well-known in the adult community as dedicated, according to the group's 2005 tax return, to sponsoring "events which educate the public to the destructive impact of obscenity, pornography and indecency." CCV sponsored the first nationwide "Pro-Family Conference on Pornography" in 2000, and was also the primary sponsor of the petition drive which put SB 16, the recently passed anti-adult ordinance, before the Ohio legislature.

"New research conducted by ProgressOhio indicates that campaign finance reports filed by Citizens for Community Values Action may have failed to properly report contributions and expenditures in violation of the Ohio Election Law," wrote Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, in a complaint filed in late March with Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer L. Brunner.

CCV, you see, is a 501(c)(3) corporation for income tax purposes, which means that contributions to it are tax deductible – but it also means that the organization is limited as to what political activities it can engage in. CCV Action, which was created in June, 2004 and ended its existence six months later – about a month after the 2004 presidential election – is a 501(c)(4) corporation, also non-profit and, according to the IRS Code, must be "operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees" and "the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes."

In addition to his role as president of CCV, Burress is also listed as chairman of CCV Action.

According to ProgressOhio, both of those organizations provided assistance to the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage (OCPM), a political action committee (PAC) supporting State Issue 1, which would have amended Ohio's constitution to ban same-sex marriage. According to its tax filings, CCV Action also donated to Equal Rights Not Special Rights, a group which sought to delete gays as a protected group from Cincinnati's anti-discrimination laws.

Interestingly, all four of those organizations shared the same address: 11175 Reading Rd., Cincinnati, Ohio 45241-1997 – no separate suite numbers for the PACs are noted on CCV or CCV Action's IRS Form 990 Exempt Organization Tax Form.

According to CCV Action's Form 990 for 2004, it "[c]irculated petitions to place a state constitutional amendment defining marriage on the general election ballot; educated Ohio residents regarding the benefits of the amendment and advocated for its passage through newsletters, newspaper ads, radio ads, and television ads; succeeded in amending the Ohio state constitution. Benefits 11.5 million people in 2004." That same filing noted that CCV Action donated $667,000 to OCPM and $271,061 to Equal Rights Not Special Rights that year.

And since the organization's six-month lifespan coincided almost exactly with the political campaigns it supported, ProgressOhio charges that, "The timing of the creation and termination of Citizens for Community Values Action, along with its stated accomplishments, suggest that its sole purpose was to act as an election-year conduit through which donations in support of State Issue 1 – and in opposition to the Cincinnati amendment – could flow."

This allegation forms the nub of ProgressOhio's charges.

"Organizations created pursuant to Section 501 c (4) of the Internal Revenue Code are free to contribute to ballot issue campaigns that are aligned with the organization's exempt purpose," Rothenberg wrote. "However, if the c (4) organization also fits the definition of a PAC under Ohio law, it cannot circumvent disclosure simply by claiming c (4) status. As you are aware, Ohio law requires political action committees to file a 'true and itemized statement .... setting forth in detail the contributions and expenditures' made or received in connection with state ballot issues. Ballot issue PACs may be tax exempt under 501 c (4), but they are still PACs under state campaign finance law."

"In reports filed with the Secretary of State's office," Rothenberg continued, "Citizens for Community Values Action reported total expenditures of just $42,286.58, far less than the figures the organization disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service. If the organization truly used 'newspaper ads, radio ads and television ads' to amend the Ohio Constitution, as it has indicated to the Internal Revenue Service, the full and true expenditures would surely have been much more than what has been disclosed to date."

In fact, according to its Form 990, CCV Action reported donating a total of $1,440,629 to the OCPM – more than twice what it reported to the IRS ($667,000) and more than seven times what it reported it had donated to the Cincinnati amendment ($271,061) to the Ohio Secretary of State. ProgressOhio thought that discrepancy was suspect.

"Whether the organization has properly reported its contributions and expenditures, or whether it has failed to do so, either by oversight or a calculated intent to conceal, cannot be known without additional documentation," Rothenberg wrote to Secretary Brunner. "Whatever the issue, transparency in elections is a value that must be enforced. Accordingly, ProgressOhio respectfully requests that your office investigate campaign finance reports filed by Citizens for Community Values Action."

ProgressOhio's concern is clearly warranted. While CCV and CCV Action have portrayed themselves as grassroots groups fighting for the common citizen, it's hard to believe that ordinary people in Ohio could have, on their own, contributed the entire $2,453,372 that CCV Action reported as its gross receipts in 2004, or the $1,265,119 that CCV itself reported. It had been rumored, for instance, that some members of the Lindner family, which once controlled the Cincinnati Inquirer newspaper, had been large contributors to CCV, and the planned investigation should reveal whether any of the Lindners contributed to CCV Action, and if so, whether their (or others') contributions would have been large enough to raise suspicions that CCV Action had been used simply as a conduit for those contributions.

Moreover, this isn't the first time CCV has been accused of such wrongdoing. Eric Resnick of the Gay People's Chronicle reported that similar complaints have been filed against the group going back to 1993, accusing CCV and related groups of "routing contributions through non-profits, which then gave the money to the campaigns in their own name." None of those prior complaints was ever fully investigated.

If it turns out that CCV or CCV Action were being used as conduits to funnel campaign funds to the conservative ballot issues, whose appearance on the ballot has been credited with driving more conservative voters to the polls in 2004 (thereby helping to assure reelection for George W. Bush), the IRS could terminate either group's tax-exempt status.

At press time, the Ohio Secretary of State's office said it was in the process of selecting a special counsel to run the investigation of this matter.