Several local candidates for office — including Humboldt County supervisor Virginia Bass and, apparently, supervisor Ryan Sundberg — have employed local religious nonprofit Redwood Teen Challenge to do phone-banking for their current election campaigns.

Redwood Teen Challenge is part of a national network of “Christ-centered, faith-based” residential rehab facilities, and it’s organized as a 501(c)(3), meaning it has been granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.

One condition of that deal is that 501(c)(3) organizations are supposed to stay out of partisan politics.

Here’s how the National Council of Nonprofits explains it:

In return for its favored tax-status, a charitable nonprofit promises the federal government that it will not engage in “political campaign activity” and if it does, IRS regulations mandate that the charitable nonprofit will lose its tax-exempt status. [Emphasis in original.]

The IRS itself says effectively the same thing:

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. … Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes. 

Last week the Outpost called Redwood Teen Challenge to ask about its phone-banking activity this election season. Tom Throssel, pastor and executive director of the organization, was a bit reluctant to offer answers.

“Um, well, can I say ‘no comment?’” he asked. 

Pressed on the matter, Throssel defended the activity, saying his organization has “no political voice [or] political agenda” and is merely offering a service.

“People have asked us to phone bank so we’re making phone calls,” Throssel said. 

He declined to identify which candidates have hired his organization for that purpose but insisted “we aren’t endorsing them.”

Not all political activity is prohibited for 501(c)(3) organizations. That’s why, for example, the League of Women Voters of Humboldt County can engage in voter registration efforts and host candidate forums. But the IRS prohibits any activity that “would favor one candidate over another.” The calls from Redwood Teen Challenge certainly seem to do that. 

Fifth District resident Ken Miller said he received a call from a woman who “basically ran down a litany of [Sundberg’s] achievements,” including his time on the California Coastal Commission, oyster jobs, Westhaven’s water supply and “six or seven other things very quickly.” The caller encouraged Miller to vote for Sundberg.

At the end of the pitch the caller asked Miller if he had any questions. “I asked if she was paid. She said, ‘yes.’ I asked who was paying her. She said Redwood Teen Challenge,” Miller recalled.

Below is a voicemail left for another Fifth District resident, though the Outpost hasn’t confirmed that this particular call came from Redwood Teen Challenge. 

Sundberg campaign call

Calls and an an email to Sundberg seeking comment have not been returned.

Bass confirmed via email that her campaign paid Redwood Teen Challenge to do phone banking on her behalf. 

“My family and neighbors often hire Teen Challenge to do many different jobs,” she wrote. “We support the efforts of the organization and appreciate the difference they make in people’s lives. … I believe they have phone-banked for ballot measures as well as candidates through the years.”

The law prohibiting charitable organizations from openly engaging in partisan politics is known as the Johnson Amendment. It was introduced in 1954 by former President Lyndon B. Johnson (then a Texas senator) and incorporated into the federal tax code later that year.

There have been several attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment in recent years. At last year’s National Prayer Breakfast President Donald Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, but as NPR recently reported, that effort “ran into stiff opposition from nonprofit organizations and many church groups who said that without the amendment they would face pressure from politicians seeking endorsements.”

So the law remains on the books, for now, though it’s not always clear when it has been violated, said Eric Gorovitz, a principal attorney at San Francisco firm Adler and Colvin, which specializes in the law of nonprofit organizations. Gorovitz said he couldn’t address this specific case, but generally, when it comes to the Johnson Amendment, “it’s a question of risk factors, not bright lines.”

“It’s not categorically the case that anybody connected to a charity can’t participate” in elections and campaign activities, Gorovitz said. “They have their full First Amendment rights as individuals.” But he reiterated that the main distinction is whether the political activity is done under the banner of the organization and is partisan in nature. 

The consequences for violating the Johnson Amendment, Gorovitz said, range from losing tax-exempt status to receiving a letter from the IRS that says, “Don’t do that again.”

As for the candidates involved — Bass and Sundberg — it doesn’t appear that they’ve violated any campaign rules. Jay Wierenga, communications director for California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said that while other laws might come into play, the Political Reform Act doesn’t prohibit candidates from hiring charitable organizations to do phone banking.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “as long as there is proper campaign finance reporting by a campaign, political activity is just that, political activity.”

Throssel insisted Redwood Teen Challenge is doing nothing wrong. He compared their activities to those of an auto dealer who sells a car to a candidate. “It doesn’t mean the car seller necessarily endorses them,” he said.

Still, he refused to identify which candidates have employed his organization’s services. “If somebody from law enforcement were to ask us I’d be happy to reveal what we’re doing,” Throssel said.