Give until it hurts

Shock and embarrassment, tinged with dread, seep into Louis Panacciulli's voice like a slow-moving wave. Panacciulli, conductor of the Nassau Pops Symphony Orchestra, has just been asked by a reporter why his nonprofit group contributed last year to County Executive Tom Gulotta's war chest.

Under federal law, tax-exempt organizations like the Nassau Pops are prohibited from making political donations of any sort, whether in support of a party, a candidate or a referendum.

Yet there was the symphony's gift, check number 299 written for $200 to Citizens for Tom Gulotta and recorded July 27, 1998, in finance reports that Gulotta's campaign filed with the county Board of Elections.

Panacciulli sucks in his breath. "Should I contact our attorney?" he says. "Is someone coming after us?"

Panacciulli's dilemma started with an invitation to a dinner sponsored for Gulotta by local arts boosters. Panacciulli says he bought two tickets from the Nassau County Office of Cultural Development, without realizing he was making a campaign contribution. Though his check was made out to Citizens for Tom Gulotta, the conductor says he was showing loyalty to Long Island culture, not to a heavyweight Republican boss.

"If the tickets were not proper, they were given to us by the county," Panacciulli says. "It was in allegiance to the arts. [The Office of Cultural Development has] helped us with getting positions in a concert or funding or whatever came up. When they call and ask you for help, you don't want to say no, because they've always helped you."

The Pops were hardly the lone nonprofit to back Gulotta last year. His list of donors included contributors ranging from the Minnewaska Chamber Music Society and the Eastern Amputee Athletic Association to the New York Brass Choir and the Nassau County Museum of Art. Even the Incorporated Village of Bellerose waded into the murky water, writing a $200 check that Gulotta returned in August after the illegal donation was pointed out by the Long Island Voice (see The Party in this issue, page 11).

After sinking the county into at least $200 million of debt, Gulotta has raised a personal campaign purse of more than $2 million—even though he's not running for election until 2001. Despite being fiscally flush and despite having returned other improper donations, Gulotta's campaign shows little sign of admitting any responsibility for the charities' contributions.

When asked by the Voice, Bob Sherman, Gulotta's campaign treasurer and chief of staff, says he'll write to the nonprofits that donated and ask them to research the legality of the contributions. Rather than simply give back the money, Sherman says, he wants the charities to sort the matter out themselves. "If they wish the check back," he says, "we will return it."

Gulotta's campaign wasn't the only one that got funding from nonprofits. Financial reports filed by other GOP organizations contain a similar smattering of checks from groups that would seem to have scant reason for being politically active. Last September, the Baldwin Little League tossed $100 to the Nassau County Republican Committee. An organization listed as Rabbi Widom's Discretionary Fund, from Temple Emanuel in Great Neck, blessed the North Merrick Republican Committee—which is Gulotta's home base—with $500 in April.

Added together, the nonprofits' contributions represent just a miniscule portion of the GOP's considerable stash. County Republicans stoke their election engines with scads of cash from municipal workers, construction companies and influential law firms—not with modest checks from community choirs.

Yet the GOP machine's hold on Nassau is so firm and its influence so pervasive that even the proceeds from Little League concession stands aren't safe from politicians' clutches. Party chiefs and the employees they hire control access to baseball diamonds, concert bills and grant money. That apparently leaves charities with an uncomfortable but distinct sense of self-imposed obligation to ante up—even though doing so may run afoul of the law.

Gerard Terry, an attorney affiliated with the Nassau Democratic Party, says the practice of culling donations from local nonprofits reveals the toll that political maneuvering takes on everyday Island life. Bowing to the machine has become so commonplace that suburbanites no longer weigh the risks.

"The culture is such that well-meaning people who are not even necessarily political or partisan—the Little Leagues and the Friends of the Arts—don't even realize that when they bring that co-signed check to the Gulotta fundraiser, they're doing something that in the most extreme instance could jeopardize their organization," Terry says. "That's the story. That tells us something about our community that maybe we didn't know before."

'All the not-for-profits do it.'

Federal law leaves little room for interpretation when it comes to charities contributing to political causes. In exchange for a host of benefits, including the ability to attract donations by making them tax-deductible, nonprofits such as churches and museums agree to stay out of electioneering.

"The law is quite clear," says Bob Kobel, spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service in Brooklyn. "A [charitable] organization is strictly prohibited from taking part in any form of partisan political activity. It's one of the most explicit parts of tax law that I've seen."

If a charity breaks the rules, it risks losing its tax-exempt status, but Kobel says a single violation would likely draw a mere warning.

Next Page »