Greenpeace, the global environmental advocacy group, has filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service asking the agency to investigate whether the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound violated federal tax law by airing a radio ad critical of Deval Patrick’s support for an offshore wind farm during the final days of the governor’s race.
The complaint, which was filed Wednesday, also asks the IRS to investigate whether the Alliance breached the requirements for nonprofit charities and educational groups – known as 501(c)(3)s – by exceeding spending limits on lobbying, and by engaging in activities that benefit the private interests of donors and board members.
“We respectfully request that you undertake a comprehensive investigation of the Alliance’s activities, contributions and expenditures,’’ the complaint says. Greenpeace also urged the IRS to consider a range of penalties, including fines and the revocation of the Alliance’s tax-exempt status.
An IRS spokesperson did not return calls for comment.
Earlier this week, the Globe reported that the radio ad aired by the Alliance may have violated federal tax law, which bars 501(c)(3)s from engaging in political campaign activity. According to IRS guidelines, such groups “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.’’
Audra Parker, president of the Alliance, brushed aside the Greenpeace complaint, saying the radio ad criticizing Patrick’s support for the Cape Wind energy proposal was aimed at educating the public and was permissible under federal tax law.
“Greenpeace has a history of supporting Cape Wind and harassing the Alliance,’’ Parker said. “Alerting the public to the financial burden they would face if Cape Wind is allowed to go forward is central to our mission and is a voter education activity.’’
The ad aired on five radio stations covering Greater Boston, the South Shore, and the Worcester area and attacked Patrick for backing Cape Wind, while noting “the other candidates for governor’’ opposed its plan.
Donations to 501(c)(3)s such as the Alliance are tax-deductible because they are considered contributions to the betterment of society, and the organizations are not required to disclose the identity of their donors.
Greenpeace also filed a copy of its IRS complaint with Attorney General Martha Coakley, who oversees local nonprofit organizations, asking for a state investigation. And it filed a separate, third complaint with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, asking the agency to determine whether the Alliance violated campaign finance laws by failing to register as a political committee, and by coordinating its radio ad with an unnamed gubernatorial campaign. Last night, spokesmen for both agencies declined to comment.
“The Alliance’s conduct goes well beyond what is considered acceptable conduct for a 501(c)(3),’’ said Cheryl Cronin, a Boston attorney and former general counsel of the state campaign finance agency, who has been retained by Greenpeace. “This appears to be a deliberate and consistent effort to participate in a campaign in both a direct and indirect way.’’
In its IRS complaint, Greenpeace says that the Alliance ad was not the only instance in which the group might have violated the prohibition. In addition, Greenpeace said the Alliance issued six press releases between Oct. 13 and Nov. 2 that could be seen as illegal attempts to influence the election outcome.
Patrick supports the Cape Wind proposal while his three opponents opposed it.
Greenpeace also challenged the Alliance’s nonprofit status by questioning whether its lobbying expenses exceeded IRS limits.
In addition, it said the Alliance’s opposition to a wind energy proposal may be serving the private business interests of one of its cochairmen, William I. Koch, an Osterville summer resident who is the founder and owner of the Oxbow Group, a $4 billion fossil fuel company. In October, the Globe reported that Oxbow paid $1 million to a lobbying firm that worked against Cape Wind from 2005 to 2007.
Brad Goldstein, a spokesman for Koch and Oxbow, said Koch’s opposition has nothing to do with his interest in fossil fuels. “We have no business interests in Massachusetts,’’ Goldstein said, adding, “I could argue that Greenpeace is operating as a political arm of Cape Wind.’’
After reviewing the Greenpeace complaint, Laura J. Kenney, of the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said, “Greenpeace makes a very well-articulated argument in its letter to the IRS. In general, I think the IRS would normally be interested in examining the activities of a 501(c)(3) that has potentially violated the prohibition on campaign activity and the restrictions on lobbying and private benefits.’’
The Cape Wind proposal calls for building 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. The cost of power from the turbines is expected to be twice the current cost of fossil fuel energy. But the project is projected to add less than $2 a month to the bills of National Grid residential customers.
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