501 (c) (3), anyone?

The Heritage Foundation is hosting sessions at which lobbyists discuss plot re-election strategy for and with Sen. Rick Santorum. That’s a no-no.

Updated and retracted: see below.

From a story by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Charles Babington in Thursday’s Washington Post, discussing the fact that Sen. Rick Santorum has continued to meet with the same group of lobbyists he promised to stop meeting with after the Abramoff sandal broke:

… in the month since his announcement, Santorum has held two meetings attended by the same core group of lobbyists, and has used the sessions to appeal for campaign aid, according to participants. Both of those meetings were convened at the same time as the previous meetings — 8:30 a.m. — on the same day of the week — Tuesday — and they lasted for about as long as the earlier meetings — one hour.

Instead of being held in the Capitol, however, the recent meetings were conducted nearby. The first was held about three blocks away, at the headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the second was held around the corner from that building, at the Heritage Foundation

Further down in the story, the purpose of the meetings is said to be “to help Santorum’s reelection effort.”

Put aside for the moment the Santorum issue. He’s toast.

Focus on that sentence about meeting at the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, like most bogus ideological think tanks, is a tax-exempt organization. That means it’s not supposed to contribute resources, including meeting space, to for the purposes of electoral politics.

By allowing Santorum to use its facilities, Heritage is in effect turning some of the money from its corporate contributors into contributions to Santorum’s campaign. Corporate campaign contributions are, of course, illegal.

What’s striking is that Heritage’s blatant partisanship is so much an accepted fact that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the reporters that there was anything unusual in this blatantly illegal intervention by a tax-exempt foundation into a senator’s re-election campaign.

No doubt the IRS, which has been quick to threaten a church that allowed a sermon critical of the President and (at the behest of one of Tom Delay’s myrmidons) a foundation that looked too closely at some of Mr. DeLay’s money laundering, will be be equally quick to investigate this bedrock conservative institution.

And if you believe that, I’ll tell you another one.

Update Steve is right (see post immediately above): this could have been done legally by having Santorum’s campaign pay Heritage for the use of its meeting space, assuming that Heritage is in the business of renting out that space. I asked a cynical Washington veteran whether Heritage was in that business, and he replied “They will be if anyone asks the question.” Presumably, they could even gin up an invoice now.

So I posted too hastily. Still, I hope Birnbaum and Babington follow up on this.

Update and retraction Birnbaum and Babington have followed up, and so has someone else. Santorum’s campaign says it paid Heritage $500 for the space, which means that there was no impropriety. I shouldn’t have been so hasty to jump to the conclusion that Heritage had violated the rules.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com