Write-in gubernatorial candidate Annette Smith confirmed today that she’ll remain executive director of nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment even while running for office.
Smith received both solicited and unsolicited legal advice, and had been told by several experts that keeping her position isn’t a problem, as long as she makes it clear what role she is playing at any given time.
“I just need to be clear about what hat I’m wearing when I speak,” said Smith, who founded Vermonters for a Clean Environment in 1999. “For instance, if I’m in a debate, I’m there as a candidate. If you call me about an activity at Vermonters for a Clean Environment, I will talk to you about that.”
The Internal Revenue Service, which oversees the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, is clear that political activity by nonprofits is strictly forbidden, although it allows for limited lobbying. If the organizations themselves, for example, officially endorse candidates, or give political donations, they can lose their tax exemptions.
But the law does not forbid nonprofit employees from becoming candidates or engaging in politics a personal capacity, explained nonprofit lawyer Brian Murphy. He said that nonprofit officials could not utilize the nonprofit’s financial or personnel resources, for instance, but that otherwise such a dual role is “perfectly legal.”
Although Murphy couldn’t speak to exactly how often nonprofit officials engage in political activity, he believed Smith’s situation was neither the first nor last of its kind in the state, and wasn’t particularly unusual. He pointed out that politically active people often sit on the board of directors for nonprofits.
Murphy also suspected the IRS wouldn’t immediately scrutinize a nonprofit merely because an executive director ran for office, saying that there likely had to be some further indication that the person is using the organization to further their campaign, or is blurring the distinctions between the two.
“What’s not legal is for the organization to be engaged in political activity,” said Murphy. But on situations like that faced by Smith, “I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about it.”
Smith said she isn’t worried about potential IRS scrutiny or about her group losing its 501(c)(3) status and her board of directors remained supportive of her dual roles. Earlier this year, VPIRG fired its former health care specialist Cassandra Gekas shortly after she declared her candidacy for lieutenant governor.
“I do feel confident that I can maintain the muzzle that comes with Vermonters for a Clean Environment,” said Smith. “It’s something I’ll continue to be scrupulous about.”
Smith had already encountered a minor problem, however, in which she couldn’t speak on a Rutland radio show about her nonprofit work because, as a candidate, the Federal Communications Commission required the radio host allocate equal air time to all the other gubernatorial candidates.
Read the relevant sections of an IRS-issued guidance on the ins and outs of political activity for tax exempt groups, especially helpful during election years, here.
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