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          Front Page

Nonprofit Must Register As a Political Committee

By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Investigative Reporter

          An Albuquerque nonprofit that distributed mailers portraying Sen. Shannon Robinson and other lawmakers as being in the pocket of big business must register as a political committee, according to Secretary of State Mary Herrera.
        In a letter Herrera sent Monday after consultation with the state Attorney General's Office, she said, "It appears that New Mexico Youth Organized is operating as a political committee for purposes of the (state) Campaign Reporting Act."
        The group, an arm of the Center for Civic Policy, has 10 working days to "correct this matter and provide a written explanation of the apparent violation," the secretary of state said.
        Eli Lee, executive director of the Center for Civic Policy, said in a statement late Monday that his group strongly disagrees with the directive and will "pursue all legal remedies at our disposal."
        He has said the mailers were strictly educational and carefully reviewed by lawyers to comply with rules governing nonprofit organizations, including being mailed well in advance of the election that cost Robinson and two other legislators their positions.
        Since March, the center has helped send out mailers targeting at least nine lawmakers — most of them from the Albuquerque area.
        The letter from Herrera didn't go into specifics as to why the group's activities were political in nature. But an initial letter from King's office to Herrera on May 22 said registering as a political committee would provide greater "transparency" over the electoral process.
        King's office later described the mailers as "campaign materials."
        Herrera's directive wasn't much of a surprise to the center, which was formed in 2006 for educational and charitable purposes.
        But lawyers for the center have tried to head off such a directive since Robinson first complained to Attorney General Gary King earlier this year. They contend it would violate the First Amendment right to free speech to require the center to register and file disclosures of its contributions — which is required of political committees in New Mexico.
        "This is a meaningless frolic," Albuquerque attorney John Boyd, one of the center's lawyers, told the Journal last week. Boyd has predicted the matter would end up in court.
        Center officials say registering as a political committee would have a "chilling effect" on other nonprofits in New Mexico whose goals are to inform and educate the public about various issues.
        "Gary (King) doesn't realize how devastating this could be to nonprofits," Lee said.
        The $21,000 in mailers involving Robinson and other lawmakers were sent between March and April to show a link between their political contributions from special interests and their votes as legislators, center officials say. They say the fliers were "not political" nor intended to influence the election this year.
        Robinson, a 19-year Albuquerque lawmaker, lost the June primary election by a wide margin.
        Several weeks ago he was one of three legislators targeted by such mailers who filed suit against the center and several other nonprofits in an attempt to regain their seats. Sen. James Taylor and Rep. Dan Silva, the two others who sued, also lost their re-election bids.
        All three are Democrats.
        The center, which lobbies and helps train other nonprofit organizations, also has financed recent radio ads about the influence of special interests, featuring characters such as "Big Oil Bob" and "Health Insurance Hal."
        Lee said in a recent interview his group didn't pay to sponsor all mailers this year that targeted legislators, although the groups that sent them are part of his coalition.
        It was unclear whether those nonprofit organizations, such as SouthWest Organizing Project and Conservation Voters New Mexico Action Fund, also would have to register.
        Lee said the center has voluntarily disclosed 95 percent of its contributors — which have been charitable foundations and funds in New Mexico and from around the country.
        The center received nearly $600,000 in contributions last year and expects to spend more than $1 million this fiscal year.
        Lee said the other 5 percent of their donations come from individual contributors he declined to identify out of concerns for their safety.