Nader Had Campaign Office at Charity
Situation Raises Ethical Questions
By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page A01
Since October, Ralph Nader has run his campaign for president out of the same downtown Washington offices that through April housed a public charity he created -- an overlap that campaign finance specialists said could run afoul of federal laws.
Tax law explicitly forbids public charities from aiding political campaigns. Violations can result in a charity losing its tax-exempt status. In addition, campaign law requires candidates to account for all contributions -- including shared office space and resources, down to the use of copying machines, receptionists and telephones.
Records show many links between Nader's campaign and the charity Citizen Works. For example, the charity's listed president, Theresa Amato, is also Nader's campaign manager. The campaign said in an e-mail to The Washington Post that Amato resigned from the charity in 2003. But in the charity's most recent corporate filing with the District, in January, Amato listed herself as the charity's president and registered agent.
The office suite housing the campaign, the charity and other sub-tenants had a common receptionist for greeting visitors.
And Federal Election Commission records show the campaign paid rent to Citizen Works and Citizen Works' landlord. Nader said the campaign has taken over the charity's lease on its coveted location on 16th Street NW.
"There is nothing, no wrongdoing here," Nader said Friday.
The shared-space arrangement was vetted by an outside lawyer and is legal, Nader said, because his campaign has paid Citizen Works fair market value to rent office space and buy furniture.
"You can search until kingdom come," Nader said. "You'll find no cross-subsidies here."
In an e-mail, Citizen Works said it complied with the law. "Citizen Works has provided no assistance, direct or indirect, to the Nader for President Campaign," it said.
Campaign finance specialists criticized the arrangement for its appearance of commingling political and nonprofit activities.
"Candidates should not be running a campaign for public office out of a nonprofit organization," said campaign-finance expert and attorney Fred Wertheimer. "It makes a lot more sense to keep them separate and apart to avoid any sense of appearance of interrelationship or problem of intermingling."
Jan W. Baran, a veteran campaign finance lawyer who represented televangelist Pat Robertson when his presidential campaign was audited by the FEC, said Nader's arrangement was unusual for a presidential candidate. "Even Pat Robertson didn't have his campaign organization at the Christian Broadcasting Network," Baran said. "His campaign headquarters were down the street in Chesapeake."
While some areas of campaign finance law have been open to different interpretations, experts say the line between public charities and political campaigns is a bright one. Prominent politicians have been tripped up by coming too close to it. Robertson was ultimately cleared after an intensive investigation over whether charities had any role in his campaign. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was reprimanded and fined by the House in 1997 after a special counsel found that he had used a nonprofit college course and a charity to further his political purposes.
On June 10, the Internal Revenue Service sent letters to political parties warning them that charities "are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company