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IRS Investigating NAACP For Criticizing Bush

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The Internal Revenue Service is investigating the non-profit status of the NAACP after its chairman, Julian Bond, criticized the Bush administration in a speech at its annual convention in July. We speak with NAACP Director Hilary Shelton about the investigation as well as the intimidation and suppression of voters around the country. [includes rush transcript]

Three members of Congress are calling on the Internal Revenue Service to drop an investigation into the non-profit status of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The IRS audit comes after its chairman, Julian Bond, criticized the Bush administration in a speech at its annual convention in July.

At the time, President Bush turned down an invitation from the NAACP–the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization–to speak at the convention. In his speech, Chairman Bond criticized Bush’s civil rights record, the Iraq war, the high black unemployment rate and the decline of educational opportunities for blacks.

The letter addressed to the IRS Commissioner by three House Democrats: Charles Rangel of New York, Pete Stark of California and John Conyers of Michigan says: “it is obvious that the timing of this IRS examination is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the members of the NAACP.”

The NAACP’s tax-exempt status allows contributors to make tax-deductible contributions but restricts its lobbying efforts. If the IRS investigation determines that the NAACP intervened in a political campaign, the most severe penalty would be the loss of its tax-exempt status.

The IRS said about 60 charities, churches and other tax-exempt groups are currently under investigation for possibly breaking federal rules that bar them from participating in political activities. This comes as a new report by OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group, finds a growing pattern of intimidation and suppression of free-speech and advocacy rights of charities and other nonprofits.

  • Hilary Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau in Washington DC.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to address this issue now, with the head of the Washington section of the NAACP. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

HILARY SHELTON: It’s good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be with you. Can you talk about the attack on the NAACP, or the I.R.S. investigation of the NAACP?

HILARY SHELTON: Very good. I think you have laid it out rather well. For our listeners who are not as aware, 501(c)3s are not allowed to participate in partisan political activities, but they can participate in political activities and have done it for years and years. You can legally involve yourself in non-partisan voter registration, voter education, get out the vote campaigns, as well as voter protection campaigns that the NAACP has been involved in since 1909, the founding of the organization about 95 years ago. We found it rather peculiar, number one, that the investigation would be based on a speech given by the chairman of the national board of directors of NAACP, Julian Bond. Julian Bond was critical of democrats. As a matter of fact, one of the terms that he used to describe his concerns over the Democratic Party was them being spineless at a time when the Republican Party was being ruthless about how they were handling things. So, he’s been very critical of both parties. All of that was done in the context, quite frankly, of an historic analysis of both parties and African American community involvements with those parties and those parties’ support, or lack thereof, of the African American community. So it’s peculiar that we received such a letter less than a month prior to an election, when usually that kind of thing doesn’t happen. We talked to people not only on both sides of the aisle, but lawyers that represent organizations in many different political perspectives.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilary Shelton with us. How has it affected the NAACP?

HILARY SHELTON: I think people that are not familiar with the organization, and that indeed not only do we not involve ourselves in partisan political activities because of the 501(c)3 law, we don’t involve ourselves in partisan political activities also because the constitution of the NAACP prohibits it. So, as much as we have been trying to make sure people understand that the involvement we have had in political activities is always, and it will continue to be, non-partisan. We do have people that are not as familiar. We have actually even gotten a couple of inquiries from some of the other non-profit organizations that we work with, all of which, when they understand what we have been doing and so forth, continue to be very supportive of how we do business.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilary Shelton is director of the NAACP Washington bureau. I’m wondering about the timing of the I.R.S. audit, and the role that the NAACP has played both specifically in Florida, NAACP being the organization that brought a lawsuit after the 2000 election over disenfranchisement of African Americans, and being a part of and a leader of the Election Protection Coalition.

HILARY SHELTON: Absolutely. It sent a very chilling effect, as a matter of fact, to our members and coalition partners across the country. Indeed, knowing how safe the NAACP has been in its political activities, for us to be investigated at this point, and such a highly contested election, makes many others wonder if they can continue to do the kind of political activities they are involved in. And indeed, we are totally committed to our full involvement in the political process, to see to it that African Americans and all other Americans are able to cast an unfettered vote, to be left alone and allowed to do what they want to do to have their voices heard in the ways that we have always worked to make sure their voices could be heard. But it does send a chilling effect for it to happen now. Why would they do an investigation or begin an investigation less than one month prior to a presidential election? Normally, these kinds of investigations of your tax status are usually done at the end of your filing period, which will be at the end of the year, so it’s amazing to us that this is happening now.

AMY GOODMAN: And the reports from South Carolina, Charleston County election officials cautioning South Carolinians Friday to steer clear of a fake letter that threatens the arrest of voters who have outstanding parking tickets or have failed to pay child support.

HILARY SHELTON: It’s that kind of activity that we have been working so hard to bring to the forefront. It has happened in other places in the country, too. They have asked everything from not only outstanding parking tickets and any other citations, but in many cases, fliers went out, predominantly in the African American community saying when you comes to the polls to vote, make sure you bring canceled checks showing that you have paid your child custody payments. Make sure that you bring receipts showing that you have even paid your utility bills, because there will be people at the polling sites to check. We have had outrageous fliers sent around in some communities saying, don’t worry about voting on November 2, Tuesday, you can always come back and vote on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday as well. Those kind of things that disrupt political involvement to actually suppress the African American vote is something that we’ll continue to work to prevent.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I’m looking at a report in Newsday, headlined “Minorities’ Voter Rights Raises Concerns.” It’s about the civil rights division under Acosta, the civil rights division of the U.S. government. And it says, black voters — under Acosta, black voters don’t even come in second as a priority this year for the civil rights division. He reserves that for overseas voters, according to department statements in a recent report by the government accountability office.

HILARY SHELTON: Well, we have clearly addressed — we have clearly pushed the assistant attorney general for civil rights to be very actively involved in communities that we suspect are going to be problematic. As you know with early voting and problems we experienced in the 2000 election, we have a pretty extensive list that we have shared with the Justice Department of areas that we’re concerned may very well be a problem as well. We are also concerned that the backlash of sending out prosecutors from the Justice Department to actually observe at polling sites with the sole purpose of bringing criminal cases against individuals and groups is something we’re also very fearful of. If indeed police lines are set up in front of polling sites in the African American community, as we experienced, by the way, in the 2000 election, are armed, uniformed police officers, are standing around polling sites, then to many particularly new African Americans, those who have come from countries like Haiti and totalitarian governments in Africa that are now U.S. citizens and planning on casting their vote could also send a very chilling effect and again suppress African American participation.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilary Shelton, I want to thank you for being with us. Director of the NAACP, the Washington bureau.

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