OUR VIEW: Hands off our non-profit, Mr. Candidate
Rough-and-tumble political battles are nothing new to the Bayou Region, nor Louisiana as a whole.
The bruises candidates suffer at the hands of each other are part of the process, as objectionable as all of it may appear at times.
One of the advertisements produced and aired on behalf of defeated state Senate candidate Mike Fesi, who sought Sen. Norby Chabert’s seat in Baton Rouge was a good example, however, of a campaign pitch that was anything but negative, and appeared
to have a public service component as well.
Richly scored and visually appealing, the ad incorporated B-roll of Houma’s Regional
Military Museum on Barrow Street and of Fesi and campaign associates bringing food to volunteers who staff it.
Two of the museum’s officers, C.J. Christ and Will Theriot, talk about the importance of
honoring veterans. They also speak of good things that Fesi has done for the institution.
The problem, as attorneys and consultants familiar with the laws governing nonprofits, is the risk that Fesi, his campaign people and the two museum officers courted.
An appearance of political favoritism can mean the stripping of a charitable organization’s tax-exempt status. The Internal Revenue Service – not regarded as the most benevolent or forgiving of federal agencies – is the ultimate arbiter of a nonprofit’s status.
The Times – reluctantly – ran an online story last week detailing the issue.
But at that point the story needed to be told in detail, because Fesi’s campaign, responding to questions about the commercial, posted a Facebook rant accusing his former opponent of trying to remove the museum’s tax-exempt status out of political pique.
Complicating matters is the coming vote on extension of the millage the district that governs the museum imposes on taxpayers.
The Veterans’ Memorial District, which oversees the museum, has a $1 million net position, according to its last audit, which reflects receipt of nearly a half-million dollars in state and local funds.
Fesi holds no public office and is not accountable to the district, which until now he has only helped as a benevolent benefactor. Christ and Theriot both hold seats on the Legislature-created board that decides how taxpayer money should be spent and as such are accountable for their actions, as officers of the museum’s foundation, due to its cherished community status, but more importantly as members of the Veterans’ Memorial District Board.
His kneejerk reaction to mere questions about his advertisement and its potential for harm to the museum was nonetheless self-serving and unnecessary.
The truth of the matter is that if Fesi and his campaign crew had not come to the museum, putting its founders on the spot, there would have been no newspaper inquiry. There would have been no risk to the museum’s tax-exempt status.
Local candidates and office-holders were asked, during the course of the examination by The Times, whether they would involve a non-profit to engage in behavior that dealt with politics and elections. All of those interviewed said they would not.
Fesi’s handler, who has been paid tens of thousands of dollars by the campaign for its counsel, should have known the same thing.
Fesi should have protected an institution whose leaders he claims as friends, and those who founded and nurtured the museum should have done the same.
Hopefully all involved will take the incident as a lesson learned, with no further harm resulting. •