‘Excessive lobbying’ by nonprofit federal land critic prompts complaint to IRS

A Montana nonprofit led by a federal land critic should give up its tax-exempt status because of lobbying activities, according to two watchdog groups.

On Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability sent a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service claiming Citizens for Balanced Use has repeatedly violated laws that limit the amount of lobbying that tax-exempt nonprofit organizations are allowed to carry out.

The stated mission of Citizens for Balanced Use, based near Bozeman, is to “educate the public on the issues that confront our ability to access and actively manage our public lands,” but the complaint claims the group does more than just educate.

The complaint alleges that members of Citizens for Balanced Use have lobbied both state and federal officials for greater multiple-use activities, particularly motorized use and resource extraction, on public land for at least the past four years.

At the state level, members have testified against a number of conservation bills while advocating for more state control of federal lands.

Citizens for Balanced Use founder Kerry White has served since 2013 as a representative in the Legislature and regularly votes in line with his organization.

At the federal level, the organization regularly communicates with Sen. Steve Daines and initiated and supported Daines’ efforts to eliminate a number of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, according to the complaint.

The question is whether these activities violate IRS rules for tax-exempt organizations.

The IRS does allow lobbying, as long as it’s not a “substantial part” of a nonprofit’s activities. But the IRS hasn’t defined what qualifies as “substantial,” so Citizens for Balanced Use may be able to contest the complaint.

While the Campaign for Accountability filed the complaint, the Whitefish-based Western Values Project actually raised the question of whether Citizens for Balanced Use was breaking the law.

The Campaign for Accountability is better known for taking on larger organizations such as Google or Blackrock or national issues such as abortion. But it has dipped a toe into more local public land issues, including requesting Ravalli County public records involving communications related to the Blue Joint and Sapphire Wilderness Study Areas.

The mission of the Western Values Project, according to its website, is to “bring transparency to the public lands debate,” and it regularly creates petitions and publishes reports on things from resource extraction on public land to ethics violations of land agency officials. But it doesn’t often enter the legal arena.

Prompted by recent Citizens for Balanced Use opposition to wilderness study areas, Western Values Project spent the past few months digging into past actions of the organization and found what appeared to be excessive lobbying.

Western Values Project deputy director Jayson O’Neill said he thought he had a case. But he sent the information to the Campaign for Accountability to be sure.

“(Citizens for Balanced Use) clearly had appeared to have engaged in lobbying activity. But we’re watchdogs, not lawyers,” O’Neill said. “While we try to uncover wrong-doings, when it comes to the legal matters, we try to have other groups that have the expertise carry them forward.”

Calls and emails to White were not returned by press time. But White told the Great Falls Tribune that the allegations and complaint were merely “harassing” the Citizens for Balanced Use, because it hasn’t broken laws. Members talk to legislators and Congressmen but the group doesn’t have a paid lobbyist.

“It’s a right as a private citizen,” White told the Tribune. “It’s not a paid expense, and we have a constitutional right.”

Daniel Stevens, Campaign for Accountability executive director, said the Citizens for Balanced Use went a little further than they should have and should disclose that to the IRS.

“Citizens for Balanced Use is not exempt from the laws governing public charities,” Stevens said. “If CBU wants to lobby public officials to take away protections for public lands, it needs to follow the rules. The IRS should hold CBU accountable for misleading the public about its lobbying activity.”

Even if Citizens for Balanced Use did cross the line, it’s questionable whether the IRS will investigate.

Congress severely cut the IRS budget by more than $715 million over the past decade, so the agency has lost the investigators and resources needed to police alleged crimes, such as the recent college admissions scandal.

In addition, the IRS was accused in 2013 for targeting more conservative nonprofits for audits, and the blowback caused the IRS to back off from almost all investigations. According to ProPublica, that’s cause nonprofits take more risks, especially when it comes to elections and dark money.

It’ll be hard for Stevens and O’Neill to know if the IRS does take action, so O’Neill said his organization will just keep prodding the IRS.

“It’s kind of a black box,” Stevens said. “We probably won’t be aware of any actions (IRS investigators) take; they’ll probably keep it confidential.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.