By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Nonprofits that haven't applied for tax-exempt status with the IRS operate under a more nuanced set of standards. Many charities that register with the state Attorney General's Office are prohibited from giving to candidates or supporting ballot issues, but not all. "If you're set up as a charity, you should shy away from political activities," says Kenneth Shaw, a spokesman for the AG in Albany.
Yet ask Helen Kappel why her Visual Art Alliance of Long Island gave $1,000 to Gulotta last year and you'll get a long lecture on the reasons it's perfectly legal for her state-registered charity to put its shoulder to the political plow. Gulotta has been good to the arts, Kappel says, so the arts can be good to him. "You cannot go out and support somebody who's your friend. You support someone who supports your issue," she says. "All the not-for-profits do it. Anything for sports, for children, for the arts, can do this. They choose a candidate and then they go after that guy."
Kappel, as it happens, works part-time for Nassau's Office of Cultural Development, the agency that allegedly sold tickets for a 1998 Gulotta fundraiser. Connections like Kappel's blur the line between charity and the GOP machinea line that grows fuzzier as she explains her political contributions.
Kappel says the Visual Art Alliance gave to Gulotta when funding for the Office of Cultural Development was, according to her, on the chopping block. During budget season, the Alliance testified at hearings and turned to the county executive with the kind of lobbying that counts most: a check written to his campaign. "We did that because the department was ready to fold," Kappel says. "It's easy for them to slash $3 million and take arts away, but they'll keep football."
Argue with Kappel's interpretation of the law and you'll find yourself faced with a litany of the many years she has managed charitable arts organizations. If nothing else, Kappel is convinced she's right. "When an election comes around, a not-for-profit will find a way to support the candidate who supports their issue," she says. "It's a matter of knowing how to survive, and knowing how the law operates. We can't afford to have our organizations go down because of somebody's mistake."
Kappel might take pity on poor Constance Schwartz, director of the Nassau County Museum of Art, which is registered as a charity with the IRS. Trustees and executives at the museum have a history of giving to political causes, but not usually with checks written by the museum itself. That's what happened on July 14, 1998: Check number 13781, for $200, went straight from the galleries to Gulotta's coffers, according to public records filed by Gulotta's campaign.
Schwartz sounds stricken when she hears the news. She calls the donation "absolutely stupid" and says she must have reimbursed the museum for a fundraiser she attended. "It would never have come from usnever, never," she says. "Believe me, the museum does not make contributions to anybody's campaign."
But the museum has contributed, and the evidence is there for all the world to see. "Is this going to be in the newspaper?" Schwartz says. "I think I'll have a heart attack. Oh, my Lord."
Leader of the PAC
Part of the responsibility for enforcing campaign-finance law falls to state and county Boards of Elections.
Candidates and politically active organizations must file periodic reports that show how much money they've taken in, who contributed, how the funds were spent and how much is left over. In theory, a Board of Elections could audit the reports and crack down on charities that make illegal donations to campaigns, or at least report them to the IRS or state Attorney General.
But in the realm of campaign finance, theory is a long way from practice.
Nassau's Board of Elections, for example, is so internally weak and so externally fortified that it accomplishes little beyond accepting reports. Calls to the Democratic commissioner, Barbara Patton, were referred to an outside attorney. Calls to the Republican commissioner, John DeGrace, were not returned at all.
Stanley Zalen, enforcement counsel at the state Board of Elections, says it's not unusual for local boards to be incapable or unwilling to take action. Zalen says his agency is less concerned with charities that violate tax law than with groups that are politically active but fail to register as political action committees, or PACs. And in the case of PACs, the state Board has only enough time to track down the ones required to file in Albany. "We've got all we can do with those," Zalen says. "We don't go chasing the ones who are supposed to file locally."
According to state elections law, if a company or association makes even a single political contribution, it should register as a PAC. Occasional givers rarely sign up, but dozens of frequent check-writers do.
The Family Values Coalition of Long Island, for one, has filed with Nassau. So has the Adjunct Faculty Association, a group that could include Gulotta's wife, Betsy, a professor at Nassau Community College. Politically active labor unions like the Lieutenants Benevolent Association also turn in their papers, along with corporations like Aetna and Keyspan Energy.