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The bogus claim that Michelle Nunn funded groups linked to ‘terrorists’

Georgia Republican Senate candidate David Perdue accuses his Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn, of having a campaign plan that says she "funded organizations linked to terrorists." (Video: David Perdue via YouTube)

“Michelle Nunn’s own plan says she funded organizations linked to terrorists.”

— voice-over on a David Perdue (R) campaign ad as the headline reads, “exact quote from Nunn campaign ad”

Our interest in this ad was piqued when we saw a report that Neil Bush, son of former president George H.W. Bush, called on David Perdue, the GOP candidate in the Georgia Senate race, to renounce it. Nunn had run the Points of Light Foundation for many years, and Neil Bush is chairman of it.

“To attack an organization founded by my father, whose integrity is unimpeachable, to smear our organization for political gain, is in my opinion shameful,” Bush said, just one day after his father endorsed Perdue.

The ad doubles down on the terrorist angle by declaring that Nunn favors “amnesty” for illegal immigrants and warns that members of the Islamic State terrorist group could enter the United States from Mexico.

It’s not often that one Republican so publicly attacks another’s campaign ad in a hard-fought election. What’s going on here?

The Facts

Reasonable readers might ask: Why would Nunn’s own campaign plan say she funded terrorists? Well, actually, it doesn’t.

Earlier this year, the National Review obtained a copy of a Nunn campaign memo from late 2013, outlining her strategy for winning the race. As part of that document, the campaign tried to anticipate the types of attacks that might be aimed at her by Republicans. The document said some were generic to all Democratic Senate candidates (“too liberal”) while others dealt with Nunn’s record, including her tenure at Points of Light. The reason for identifying these potential attacks was so the campaign could prepare “pushback” materials to answer the charges, which is standard operating procedure for any serious campaign.

Under the Points of Light section, the document listed things such as layoffs, Nunn’s salary and service awards to “terrorists.”

In other words, the document was not saying that she funded organizations linked to terrorists, only that she might be attacked by Republicans on this issue. So it’s pretty cyclical (and cynical) for Perdue’s campaign to use this material in this way.

When you look into the basis for this terrorism charge, it gets even more flimsy. And you begin to understand why Neil Bush is so upset.

Nunn, who is on leave from Points of Light during the campaign, began running it in 2007 when another civic organization she headed merged with Points of Light. Before she came on board, an arm of Points of Light known as MissionFish in 2003 struck a deal with eBay Inc. in which sellers on the auction site could direct their proceeds to the charities that had been verified by MissionFish as tax-exempt. Eventually, in 2011, Points of Light sold MissionFish to eBay; in 2013, eBay renamed it PayPal Giving Fund.

What’s the alleged terrorism link? One of the thousands of charities verified by MissionFish is Islamic Relief USA. Though the organization is not mentioned in the campaign memo, National Review highlighted the fact that donations of more than $13,000 flowed through MissionFish to Islamic Relief USA, resulting in the contributions being listed in some of Points of Light’s public filings (a 990 form) with the Internal Revenue Service.

(Islamic Relief USA, which especially focuses on aid after natural disasters, received donations from eBay buyers and sellers in the amounts of $230 in 2006, $202 in 2007, and $13,102 in 2010.  There were no contributions reported to Islamic Relief USA on Points of Light’s 2008, 2009 and 2011 990s.)

“Islamic Relief USA is an established, tax-exempt nonprofit organization under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code,” said Stefanie Weiss, chief communications and marketing officer of Points of Light. “The group is not listed on terrorist watch lists and remains an eBay Giving Works-approved charity.”

Indeed, the White House in 2011 featured Islamic Relief USA on its Web site when the organization began participating in Michelle Obama’s initiative to start summer food programs for children.

National Review noted that in June, the Israeli defense minister signed an order barring Islamic Relief Worldwide, an umbrella group based in the United Kingdom, as illegal, claiming it was “another source of income for Hamas,” the militant group that controls Gaza. The action was part of a crackdown on Hamas in the wake of the abduction of three Israeli students — which ultimately led to a war this summer between Israel and Hamas.

First of all, note that the Israeli action in June came long after after the Nunn campaign document was written. So there is little to support the claim of terrorism in the first place.

(In 2006, Israel said it had deported IRW’s project director in Gaza, saying the British citizen had admitted transferring “funds and assistance to various Hamas institutions and organizations.” But Iyaz Ali, 36, adamantly denied the claim, saying he detained for three weeks without charge; a military judge released him after “concluding he had done nothing wrong,” the Guardian newspaper reported. IRW said the detention appeared to be the result of Israeli confusion over entities with similar names– a British-funded hospital in Gaza was considered a Hamas charity and a reputable accounting firm was deemed a banned Hamas front.)

Second, Islamic Relief Worldwide adamantly denied Israel’s allegations, saying in a statement on June 19 that it was “extremely surprised and concerned by this, and categorically denies any links with Hamas.” The group noted that “Islamic Relief Worldwide is regulated in the U.K. by the Charity Commission and has rigorous internal control and compliance systems in place to ensure we uphold our humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.”

Martin Cottingham, a spokesman for Islamic Relief Worldwide, said that the ban remains in effect but that the group “is in the process of taking up this matter with the Israeli authorities.”

Finally, Islamic Relief USA says it is a legally independent entity. “Of the many projects IRUSA works on simultaneously, we currently assist in providing aid to the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories,” the group said in a statement. “In Gaza, this is done exclusively through our partner UNRWA  [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], the United Nations agency that is mandated to assist those affected by this conflict. In fact, IRUSA was the only non-governmental organization to be officially recognized by UNRWA in a press release and comments at the United Nations in Geneva.”

Cottingham added: “Islamic Relief USA delivers aid both through its own independent grants and partnerships and through the funding of programs run by Islamic Relief Worldwide field offices in developing countries.”

In any case, Points of Light was simply a pass-through for donations from eBay buyers and sellers to various charities, including Islamic Relief USA. The organization itself did not direct the funds.

A spokesman for the Perdue campaign did not respond to repeated queries about the ad.

The Pinocchio Test

This is a pretty smarmy ad, so one can see why Neil Bush is demanding it be withdrawn. The Perdue campaign tries to give itself cover by saying it was quoting from a Nunn campaign document, when in fact that document simply said this would be an expected campaign attack.

On top of that, the claim that Nunn “funded organizations linked to terrorists” is utterly bogus. She did not fund any such organizations; neither did Points of Lights. Islamic Relief USA has no links to terrorism and in fact has been embraced by the White House — which is why eBay continues to list it as an approved charity.

Four Pinocchios

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