Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

TOP STORY >>Group looks into mailings

Leader staff writer

A national watchdog group is looking into possible campaign violations by Cornerstone Bible Fellowship Church and other churches in Sherwood.

Cornerstone is among at least eight churches that have apparently mailed out postcards asking church members to support Bill Harmon’s campaign for mayor, and that support may be a violation of election laws and could put the churches’ nonprofit status in jeopardy.

Robert Boston, the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, said, “The key is if any church resources were used. If so, the church could lose its tax-exempt status.
“Did the church turn over its membership list to the campaign, or is this the action of a rogue member? That’s what needs to be determined,” Boston said.

“Most members have a church directory, and some could use them for nefarious purposes without the church knowing,” Boston added.

The Harmon campaign, using a membership mailing list provided by someone at Cornerstone, mailed a postcard to church members telling members that they should vote for Harmon. The postcard was signed by Scott Cromer, who is listed as an elder with the church.

A deacon with First Baptist Church has also signed similar postcards.

Early voting is currently ongoing in the special election to replace Mayor Dan Stedman, who resigned in April, citing health reasons. Harmon, the former mayor, has been serving as interim mayor.

The election is Tuesday, July 10 at eight polling sites across the city. Early voting can be done at the Jack Evans Senior Center or the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock. More than 300 people have already cast their ballots.

Mayoral candidate Doris Anderson called the postcard mailings a direct violation of the law. “Churches are for praying, healing and religion. I don’t want my church telling me what my politics should be and who I should vote for. Do you?
“And what is a church doing giving out or selling its membership list to a third party?” Anderson wanted to know. “It would be a breach of my privacy if my church gave out my information,” she said.

All the cards signed by Cromer were mailed by the “Bill Harmon Campaign Committee, 7901 Hwy. 107.”

Anderson filed a complaint with the state board of election commissioners Monday and asked for special-election monitors to be posted at all Sherwood election sites since Cornerstone and most of the other churches involved are also polling sites.
“At the time I talked to the board, I knew of two churches, but now there appears to be at least eight churches,” she said.
The election board reviewed her request for certified-election monitors and said they were not necessary.

Ruth Baines, the board’s deputy director, wrote in a letter to Anderson, “Unless you can substantiate your allegation that poll workers have become compromised, no apparent violation of any election law under the investigative jurisdiction of the state board has occurred. There is no prohibition against poll workers supporting candidates so long as no electioneering occurs while serving in their official capacity as a poll worker. Therefore, it has been determined that the appointment of monitors is unnecessary at this time.

“As a candidate on the ballot, you are entitled to one authorized representative at each polling location during the election, including early voting to observe the election process,” Raines wrote.

According to state law, no candidate can campaign, in any shape or manner, within 100 feet of a polling site, and no campaign material can be posted inside the polling site.

Mike Haigh, a pastor with Cornerstone, said Tuesday that the church had no knowledge about the postcards.
“We don’t get involved with political issues. We may take a Biblical stance on an issue, but not a political one,” he said. “We certainly have not become involved in the mayor’s race.”

Haigh also said that Cromer recently gave up his elder status with the church.

The postcards signed by Cromer say, “Bill and Marvelle Harmon are strong Christians who raised their four children in Sherwood.”

The implication is that the other candidates are not strong Christians.

Anderson’s husband, Mike, is licensed to preach in the United Methodist ministry.

“We have six children and many of them are of different faiths, so we share our church time with them,” Doris Anderson said.
City Clerk Virginia Hillman, also running for mayor, said she is definitely a Christian and that she, her husband and daughter “are actively involved in the church.”

Candidate Victor Sierra said that he was also an active churchgoer and has been attending Central Baptist Church. “I don’t know if these postcards are illegal, but I don’t think it’s right to have churches involved like this,” he said.

Richard Devine, another candidate, said that he, too, was a Christian and attended church. “But is this really relevant?” he asked.

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations—that includes many churches—are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

The IRS code says that violations could result in the loss of the organization’s tax-exempt status.

Intervention, according to the IRS, includes “distributing statements prepared by others that favor or oppose any candidate for public office.”

Susan Inman, head of the Pulaski County Election Commission, said her organization doesn’t have the authority to act on complaints like this, and said any action would have to be taken by the state board of elections or the ethics commission.
The postcard from Cornerstone also tells church members that Harmon was helpful in resolving a zoning problem the church had.

“Mayor Harmon worked with the church and the city council to resolve that issue in our favor. Now Mayor Harmon needs your help and support, and we would greatly appreciate you making the effort to get out and vote for him,” Cromer wrote.
The IRS says, to avoid possible conflicts with the campaign law, “organization leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.”

But when Cromer addressed the signed postcards to “Dear Fellow CBF Member,” the implication was that the mailing was a church-sponsored event.