Vice President Kamala Harris appears to have violated US tax law by participating in a campaign ad for Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial re-election bid that’s being aired across churches in Virginia, starting from this past Sunday.
The ad’s launch marked the first time in Virginia that voters were able to cast their early ballots on a Sunday, an event dubbed ‘Souls to the Polls.’
Between October 17 and November 2 Harris’ ad is playing at more than 300 black churches across the state.
Critics point out that the advertisement’s explicit targeting of churches appears to run afoul of Internal Revenue Service guidelines aimed at ensuring political neutrality in non-taxed organizations.
The Johnson Amendment, proposed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, prohibits tax-exempt groups classified in US tax code as 501(c)(3) organizations from ‘engaging in any political campaign activity.’
That means churches and other non-profits risk losing their tax-exempt status if they actively promote a candidate or mobilize volunteers or others in support of a specific campaign.
If a church is found in violation of the law it could be forced to pay taxes for every year it’s engaged in political activity.
Harris has been accused of violating US tax code with the above ad, which is being played at more than 300 black churches across Virginia
However, tax code does allow these organizations to partake in nonpartisan political activity, like hosting debates or election facilities.
A lobbying group that identifies as representing ‘secular Americans’ like atheists, humanists and agnostics panned the ad as ‘inappropriate’ on Monday.
‘Using religious institutions for politicking is not new nor is it a feature of a single party or theology. It is a bipartisan problem that’s been frequent during the VA gubernatorial campaign,’ the Secular Coalition for America wrote on Twitter.
‘We condemn this inappropriate mixing of government, politics, and religion.’
Former Trump 2020 campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh accused Harris of breaking the law on Sunday.
‘Kamala Harris has recorded a video endorsing Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia, which will be played in more than 300 Black churches,’ Murtaugh wrote on Twitter.
‘Two things: 1) This is expressly illegal according to federal law. 2) Do they think Harris will actually help McAuliffe?’
House Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) said it was ‘ironic’ for a pro-choice Democrat to try and appeal to churches.
‘Not only is this legally questionable but it’s ironic a politician who supports extreme abortion practices is targeting people of faith,’ the lawmaker tweeted on Sunday.
Former Virginia Governor McAuliffe (left), widely seen as Democratic powerhouse, has been slipping in the polls against Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin (right)
The roughly two-minute 20-second advertisement features Harris in the foreground between two American flags.
She spoke directly to the camera when telling voters about her own history with church and urging
‘When I was growing up, we sang in the choir at Oakland’s 23rd Avenue Church of God. We sang hymns about how faith combined with determination will see us through difficult times. And we were taught that it was our sacred responsibility to raise our voice and lift up the voices of our community. One of the most significant ways I believe that we can each use our voice is through our vote,’ Harris says in the video.
Soon after Harris shifts to a full-throated endorsement of McAuliffe – raising ethics concerns in the process.
‘I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment. Terry McAuliffe has a long track record of getting things done for the people of Virginia,’ Harris says.
‘In 2020, more Virginians voted than ever before. And because you did, you helped send President Joe Biden and me to the White House. This year, I know that you will send Terry McAuliffe back to Richmond.’
He previously served as governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018.
Harris has faced a barrage of criticism since the advertisement first aired on Sunday
McAuliffe, widely seen as Democratic powerhouse, has been slipping in the polls against Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin is a Virginia businessman who’s backed by former President Donald Trump.
It’s the second time the Biden administration has forced the McAuliffe campaign under ethical scrutiny after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki appeared to stump for the Virginia Democrat from her press room podium.
Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, an ethics group that regularly hounded the Trump administration when multiple officials talked politics or promoted merchandise from the White House grounds, announced the complaint a day after Psaki’s comments.
She had been asked whether the tight Virginia governor’s race, just a few weeks out, would be a bellwether for Biden.
‘We’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing,’ she said at the end of her comments, praising the Democrat.
According to CREW’s complaint, ‘That appears to be an endorsement of his candidacy. The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from ‘us[ing their] official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.’
It notes that ‘political activity’ is defined as ‘an activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group.’
Ironically Psaki prefaced her remarks with a hedge – indicating she sought to avoid using problematic language. Administration officials are schooled in the law when they sign on, and Psaki served in the Obama White House.
‘Well, I have to be a little careful about how much political analysis I do from here and not (inaudible) into that too much,’ she said, according to the White House transcript.
Earlier this month a video of a teleconference meeting between McAuliffe and supporters surfaced in which the Virginia governor appeared to try and distance himself from the flailing Biden administration and its crises.
‘We’ve got to get Democrats out to vote,’ McAuliffe said in a 12-second video clip of a teleconference. ‘We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington, as you know.’
‘The president is unpopular today unfortunately here in Virginia so we have got to plow through.’
It’s unclear if or how he’ll plan to differentiate himself from Biden in the last weeks before the election.