Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A candidate in the District 7 City Council runoff election said Wednesday she is hoping that the state Attorney General’s Office as well as the Internal Revenue Service investigate a local pastor for endorsing her opponent from the pulpit.
Tammy Fiebelkorn, a Democrat, is facing Lori Robertson, a Republican, for the seat being vacated by Diane Gibson. During a Nov. 16 service at Legacy Church, Pastor Steve Smothermon endorsed Robertson, who was in the audience.
In video posted by the church, Smothermon can be heard telling his congregants, “We need people like her (Robertson) on the City Council to make sure this crazy guy they call mayor doesn’t continue to push his agenda.” He also informed them that Robertson had an information booth set up in the foyer of the church for people who wish to speak with her after the service.
“I have always been told that nonprofit 501(c)(3)s are not supposed to engage in political discourse,” Fiebelkorn said. “I really hope that the AG and the IRS look into this and see if what he did violated the church’s nonprofit status. More importantly, I really hope that the District 7 voters get out and make their voices heard.”
Responding on Wednesday, Robertson said, “My opponent is trying to fabricate a scandal that does not exist,” and has “repeatedly tried to paint me as a right wing extremist.”
She went on to say that she does not know if any IRS rules were violated.
“What I can say is I appreciated the opportunity to share my faith and to meet with voters and discuss my solutions for our city’s problems,” Robertson said.
Smothermon, who has publicly challenged the validity of the governor’s COVID-related restrictions on church attendance and mask mandates, and has been fined by the state Department of Health, said, “We have surely done nothing wrong, and believe we have conducted ourselves within the bounds of the law, given our First Amendment rights.
“Separation of church and state was originally intended to protect the church from government persecution. Indeed this country was in great part founded by those seeking religious freedom,” Smothermon said.
As of Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office has not initiated an investigation of Smothermon or Legacy Church.
“We have not received a complaint regarding this specific matter,” said Jerri Mares, a spokeswoman for the AG’s Office.
David A. Tucker II, regional spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, said that “because of privacy regulations, the IRS does not comment or discuss an individual or an organizations’s relationship” with the federal agency. That includes commenting if a complaint has been made against an individual or organization, or if the IRS has begun an investigation.
The IRS website does address the issue in general terms. Under its code regarding churches and religious organizations with 501(c)(3) status, these entities “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 that prohibition “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes,” the website states.
Feibelkorn, who owns an environmental and business consulting firm, earned 24% of the vote in the Regular Local Election, while Robertson, a real estate agency, garnered 32%. Because neither candidate won at least 50% of the vote, a runoff election is required.
A runoff will also take place in District 9, where Republican Renee Grout and Democrat Rob Grilley are vying for the seat left vacant by Don Harris, who did not pursue a fifth term.
The last day for early runoff voting is Dec. 4; Election Day is Dec. 7.