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TFN Asks IRS to Investigate Foundation Linked to Texas Restoration Project

Uncovered Tax Records Show Major Funders Were Also Rick Perry Backers; Similar Groups Backing Mike Huckabee's GOP Presidential Bid

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 10, 2008

The Texas Freedom Network is asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether a Houston-based nonprofit foundation and its backers improperly sought to drag churches into Gov. Rick Perry’s reelection campaign in 2006.

“It’s bad enough when politicians and their financial backers misuse faith by dragging our houses of worship into partisan campaigns,” TFN President Kathy Miller said today. “It’s even worse if they break the law to do so. It now appears that the organizers of the Texas Restoration Project may have done both to support Gov. Perry’s reelection, and by funneling the money through a private foundation hid the source of its financing from voters.”

Tax records just uncovered by TFN indicate that a Houston-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Niemoller Foundation, created in May 2005, spent about $1.26 million in 2005 to fund the activities of the Texas Restoration Project. The foundation’s list of four “substantial contributors” included three major donors to Rick Perry’s political campaigns over the years: San Antonio businessman Jim Leininger, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, and East Texas chicken tycoon Bo Pilgrim. The fourth donor listed by the foundation, beer and wine distributor Don O’Neal of Colleyville, has also given smaller amounts to Perry campaigns.

The Texas Restoration Project hosted thousands of pastors and their spouses at six “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” in 2005, at a time when Republicans Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and state Comptroller Carole Strayhorn were considering seeking their party’s nomination for governor. They sponsored a seventh event to celebrate Gov. Perry’s inauguration in 2007. Gov. Perry spoke at all seven “briefings.” No other candidates or potential candidates for governor in 2006 received invitations to speak.

Organizations similar to the Texas Restoration Project have cropped up in other states. The South Carolina Renewal Project and Iowa Renewal Project have hosted speeches by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Speakers at those have included representatives from the Texas group. The American Prospect is reporting that new pastors’ briefings have been set for this month in advance of primary elections in South Carolina, California and Florida.

In Texas, speakers and organizers were enthusiastic in their praise for Gov. Perry at each of the events. They also encouraged pastors at the gatherings to mount voter registration drives and turn congregants out at the polls. The group’s ostensible goal was to win voter approval in November 2005 for a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage and civil unions. Those efforts, however, appear to have masked a sophisticated voter identification and mobilization strategy intended to benefit the Perry campaign in 2006, Miller said.

The partisan exploitation of houses of worship is offensive to many people of faith, said the Rev. Tim Tutt of the United Christian Church in Austin. Rev. Tutt served as a spokesperson in 2006 for the Respect Our Faith campaign, which called on clergy to resist efforts by politicians to politicize their houses of worship.

“People of faith are getting tired of cynical politicians using religion to divide us for partisan purposes,” Tutt said. “In this case, the Texas Restoration Project appears to have been a sophisticated tool for dragging churches into a partisan election campaign. I don’t care which candidates or party you support. Dragging churches into partisan politics is profoundly disrespectful toward people of faith.”

To qualify for tax exemption under the federal tax code, a 501(c)(3) organization like the Niemoller Foundation must not participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. In a 2006 speech, the IRS commissioner said his agency had found nine nonprofits, including churches, had broken the law by “giving improper preferential treatment to certain candidates by permitting them to speak at functions.”

The Rev. Laurence White and his wife are two of three directors on the Niemoller Foundation’s governing board. White is also chairman of the Texas Restoration Project. The foundation reported income of about $1.3 million in 2005 and spent all but about $29,000 in that year. Expenditures covered Texas Restoration Project activities including more than $700,000 for the six pastors’ events and payments to organizations tied to the Texas Restoration Project.

Other ties between the Perry campaign and the Niemoller Foundation/Texas Restoration Project include the following:

  • The Niemoller Foundation’s expenditures in 2005 included nearly $475,000 paid to San Jacinto Public Affairs, an Austin-based firm that organized the Texas Restoration Project’s events. The firm earned at least $4 million from work for the Republican Party of Texas and electoral candidates between July 2003 and November 2007.
  • The Perry campaign subsequently communicated directly with thousands of pastors recruited by the Texas Restoration Project, suggesting coordination between the campaign and the Restoration Project.
  • Press reports in 2005 indicated at least one of Gov. Perry’s pastors’ briefing speeches was considered a campaign event, with the Perry campaign releasing the transcript of his speech. (“Perry mobilizes evangelicals as gov’s race heats up,” Matt Curry, Associated Press, June 11, 2005)
  • The Niemoller Foundation doled out $200,000 to Plano-based Free Market Foundation and San Antonio-based Justice at the Gates in 2005. The two groups helped recruit pastors to Texas Restoration Project events. Free Market Foundation president Kelly Shackelford and Justice at the Gate director Susan Weddington served on Gov. Perry’s reelection steering committee.
  • Days before the gubernatorial election in November 2006, the Texas Restoration Project sent e-mails to pastors on its mailing list, encouraging them to participate in a statewide conference call (which took place the following week) to “discuss what we can do this election cycle to motivate our pews to vote their values.” Shackelford and David Barton, who until June 2006 had served as vice chair of the Texas Republican Party, were among the organizers and prominent speakers on the call.

Documents related to the Texas Freedom Network’s complaint to the IRS can be found here.

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The Texas Freedom Network is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of religious and community leaders who advance a mainstream agenda supporting religious freedom, individual liberties and public education.

 

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