Adam Pagnucco was very kind in his discussion of problems regarding County Council Candidate Brandy Brooks’s desire to split funds raised for her campaign with disaster relief charities. He ascribed positive motives to the candidate and described her idea as ethical but not legal in contrast to behavior by some that is not ethical but nonetheless legal.
Charitable contributions from campaign funds, however, are heavily circumscribed to charitable events that are closely related to campaigns, such as buying tickets for an event or an ad in a program, for a number of good reasons.
The first is to avoid the public having to fund a candidate’s chosen charities on top of funding their campaign—an idea that Our Revolution Montgomery County Ed Fischman thought was great in his original, later altered, post sharing Brooks’s idea. Beyond the considerable cost, the County did not adopt public financing to fund charities but to encourage behavior that limits the influence of large contributors and reins in spending.
Next, one can imagine candidates throwing fundraisers in the guise of raising money for charity as a means of meeting the threshold to receive matching funds for public financing. This would obviously subvert the intent of the law, which was to force candidates to raise money in relatively small amounts from a wide range of people. As a result, qualifying for matching funds would no longer demonstrate a certain level of grassroots support.
The definition of charity is also quite wide with many organizations engaged in activities much more controversial than disaster relief. One can, for example, set up 501(c)(3)—an organization that can accept tax-free charitable contributions—to educate people about the dangers of abortion or the benefits of abortion remaining a legal option.
On the other hand, how would government assess Brooks’s nice proposal to donate money for disaster relief in Sierra Leone if the charity is not a legally registered American organization and not subject to scrutiny? It’s a very worthy cause but hard for either officials or citizens to assess.
Donors might also start trying to claim a portion of campaign donations as tax write offs. My guess is they would be on shaky ground because there would be little concrete evidence that the money went to a legal charity beyond a candidate’s promise to spend it that way. Nevertheless, as Donald Trump has demonstrated vividly, not everyone fulfills promises to give to charity but many are willing to try to claim dubious tax benefits.
Unscrupulous people have organized charities in which the bulk of the money goes to employees, often relatives, rather to the charity’s avowed focus. Again, clearly not Brooks’s focus here, but a real problem that the State would need to guard against.
Relatedly, mixing charity and campaign finance would further burden government with trying to keep track of what portion of donations are charitable contributions and if they were then donated in a legal fashion. This is a task they are completely ill-equipped to conduct and would require more money and staff.
In short, this is a great example of how a well-intentioned idea can prove very problematic.
Brooks and Our Revolution Responses
Brandy Brooks gave a response on the Seventh State’s Facebook page that shows a candidate dealing with a campaign issue in a calm, measured way designed to reassure voters. Most will commend her commitment to adhere to the law and will (like Adam Pagnucco and myself) not think that she ever intended otherwise.
On the other hand, her plan to spend money on the legally allowed activities, such as buying tickets to events, does not comport with what most think of as disaster relief. A tendency to jump in without thinking through an idea can give voters pause, though her measured response and a willingness to correct problems shows character and limits any damage.
Our Revolution Montgomery County Chair Ed Fischman’s strong accusations against Adam Pagnucco and passionate use of naiveté as a defense on this page earlier today are less helpful. Voters like candidates with passion but also people and organizations, such as Our Revolution, to know what they’re doing.