The Freedom Council, which mobilized thousands of precinct delegate candidates in Michigan for television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, won tax-exempt status last month by declaring that it would not participate in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate.
Officials of the Freedom Council contended there is no conflict between the council's activities in Michigan -- where it fielded candidates for precinct delegate in a way boosting Robertson's prospective presidential bid -- and the prohibition against intervening in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate.
"We are not intervening in those campaigns," said Dick Minard, national director of the Freedom Council. "We are encouraging people to seek office . . . What we are doing is encouraging them to get involved in the political process with the party of their choice by becoming a precinct delegate."
On May 27, the Freedom Council succeeded in persuading more than 4,500 people to run for precinct delegate in the Aug. 5 Michigan primary, widely viewed as the first test of strength for prospective Republican presidential candidates.
The large number of filings was considered a major victory for Robertson, who later boasted: "We registered considerably more delegates than a sitting vice president George Bush and a leading congressional candidate for the presidency Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) ."
The Freedom Council also pressed the Internal Revenue Service to grant speedy approval of its application to permit acceptance of up to $500,000 from the Adolph Coors Foundation and $150,000 from the Penfield, N.Y., Kiwanis Club.
But a spokesman for the Coors Foundation said the $500,000 figure is "ridiculous," and Kiwanis officials said the organization has no plans to give the Freedom Council money.
"He's the guy on TV? One of the holy roller guys?" said Ralph Masters, lieutenant governor of the Kiwanis Finger Lakes division. "No way; there is no way." He said the largest amount the Penfield Kiwanis Club gave was to build a $10,000 picnic shelter for the town last year.
"It's completely false. There is no way we are considering giving them money," said Ernie Noble, the Penfield Kiwanis president-elect.
Robert Walker, Coors vice president for national affairs and consultant to the Coors Foundation, said, "I can't believe such a figure $500,000 like that would be bandied about . . . It would be extraordinary." Outside of Colorado, where Coors is based, the foundation has never given more than $100,000 to any recipient, he said. A relatively small grant to the council is possible, but the $500,000 figure "is ridiculous."
The May 9 letter to the IRS identifying the Kiwanis and Coors contributions sought expedited action on the request for tax-exempt status and was signed by Joseph Robbins of the Norfolk, Va., branch of Ernst & Whinney, an accounting firm representing the council. "Our firm has a general policy about not commenting," Robbins said.
Marc Nuttle, an adviser to the Freedom Council and head of Robertson's political action committee, the Committee for Freedom, said he attempted to find out about the Coors and Kiwanis donations, but "they officials of the Freedom Council don't know anything about it." There is no one in the council "hierarchy who remembers those numbers," Nuttle said. Robbins, Nuttle added, "shouldn't have done it."
The Baltimore office of the IRS granted the Freedom Council tax-exempt status on May 28, the day after the Michigan filing deadline.
Tax-exempt status was critical to the Freedom Council, founded by and presided over by Robertson until late 1985, when he became publicly interested in running for president. The council is now run by political specialists with strong ties to Paul M. Weyrich, a leading conservative strategist who founded the Heritage Foundation and runs a network of groups, including the Free Congress PAC.
Tax-exempt status permits donors to the Freedom Council -- individuals and corporations -- to deduct contributions on federal income tax forms. It also means that other tax-exempt organizations, including Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, can give money to the council.
IRS officials said the decision to grant the tax exemption was not based on an examination of the council's activities but on the organization's written application.
In the articles of incorporation provided to the IRS, the Freedom Council declared that "the corporation the Freedom Council shall not participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."
Wilson Fadley, an IRS spokesman, said, "We can't comment about any organization that may be in violation of what they say." Tax-exempt groups are "prohibited by law from involvement in political campaigns in behalf of any candidates," he said.
Council director Minard argued that the council's recruitment activities did not constitute involvement in the campaigns of the precinct delegates because "the campaign hadn't even started. The campaign didn't start until after those people became candidates, on May 27 and during the validation process that took place over the next five days. It wasn't until the county clerks certified those petitioners as delegate candidates that they became candidates."
Between certification and the Aug. 5 primary, Minard contended, the Freedom Council "will not participate in any particular campaign."
Council adviser Nuttle offered a different line of reasoning.
"Think of it in terms of a registration drive," he said. "The point of a registration drive is to get more people involved in politics . . . . You don't tell them how to vote, and therefore it's not partisan activity. What the Freedom Council did in Michigan was in the same spirit."
Nuttle argued that conservative trends in the country have proven beneficial to right-wing tax-exempt activities: "That is why conservatives, when we do a charitable operation, don't have to break the law. They are our people. All I've got to do is tell them how to get involved and walk away, and I come out with a net gain on that."
Nuttle, Minard and Jim Ellis, associate director of the Freedom Council, all have strong connections to Weyrich, who said, "I have not committed to anybody" among the potential competitors for the GOP presidential nomination. The Robertson drive, he said, "is not a Weyrich operation."