Political Therapy

Incoming Nassau County Legislator David Denenberg has decided to take action against a publicly funded Seaford charity that appears to have improperly campaigned for his opponent in the November election.

Denenberg, a Democrat from Merrick, says Milton Kalin, the director of the nonprofit Southeast Nassau Guidance Center, may have broken federal tax laws when he mass-mailed a calendar dedicated to incumbent Republican Ed Ward just days before the Nov. 2 balloting. The mental-health agency also mass-mailed a newsletter in late October that sang the praises of Ward, a veteran Nassau GOP operative.

"Honorable Ward played a major role in insuring that the integrity and effectiveness of Nassau County's substance abuse treatment system was preserved..." read the newsletter, in which one-third of the items were about the politician. "Legislator Ed Ward...has done so much to preserve and protect human services, mental health and substance abuse treatment in Nassau County."

Federal law prohibits tax-exempt charities like Kalin's from direct political activity. If the IRS rules that a charity has violated the law by campaigning, the government can revoke its tax-exempt status--wiping out a nonprofit's ability to lure tax-deductible donations. In papers filed with the IRS, the Guidance Center claims an annual budget of about $3 million and says it runs a community outpatient mental-health program, community drug and alcohol programs and a "restricted school-based counseling program." The agency depends heavily on the good wishes of government officials; it reported only $15,548 in contributions during 1998, while it received $1.4 million in government grants, including funding from the county.

Kalin credits Ward with helping the Guidance Center stay afloat. But it was a favor the agency couldn't return. Despite Kalin's free publicity, Denenberg unseated Ward by nearly 2,000 votes in a tidal wave of Democratic victories.

Flush with success, Denenberg says he's still determined to see justice done, even if that means calling in federal regulators and seeking the resignation of Kalin. "It's just appalling, when you really look at it," Denenberg says. "I would like to hold the people who are responsible accountable, rather than hold the Guidance Center responsible. If it's the one guy, I'd like to see him go."

Kalin, for his part, continues to insist that though he may have made a bad decision and may have had horrible timing, he is not guilty of electioneering.

"The points are well-taken, and there may have been poor judgement, but it's over," Kalin says. "We may have learned something from it."

But Kalin may not have finished this lesson. Denenberg has asked local party leaders to gather financial information on the Guidance Center, including the facility's publicly available tax returns. He intends to report the findings to the IRS and request that the feds consider either revoking the agency's nonprofit status or ousting Kalin.

Denenberg says he doesn't buy Kalin's argument that he was simply showing support for a legislator who has supported the Guidance Center. "It shouldn't be his candidate," Denenberg says. A charity like Kalin's "can't get involved in political campaigns."

Nonprofits getting involved in local politics is widespread in Nassau. A recent Long Island Voice inspection of campaign-finance reports filed by County Executive Tom Gulotta and the Nassau GOP showed unlawful contributions by charities ranging from the Baldwin Little League to the Nassau Pops Symphony Orchestra and the Nassau County Museum of Art [Charity of the gods, Oct. 14]. When asked why they had donated to politicians, some nonprofit directors said they believed they had little choice, since elected officials make decisions on financial support of their programs.

Kalin says he put in a good word for Ward because the legislator had worked to secure funding for the Guidance Center and had visited the facility to hear patients' concerns. But the material Kalin mass-mailed went far beyond talking about Ward's backing for mental-health treatment to include citations of the representative's work to upgrade Wantagh Park, restore funding for volunteer firefighters' training and "revitalize downtown business districts."

Now that the Democrats will take control of the legislature next month, Kalin exhibits little sign of stepping back from politics. Instead, he's become an equal-opportunity booster. "We will cultivate the Democrats as well as the Republicans," he says. "And if we do want to honor someone, we won't do it around the election."

 
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