California attorney general targets political nonprofits

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) California's new attorney general said Wednesday that he plans to target political nonprofit organizations that he said mislead donors and influence campaigns.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra put some political nonprofits in the same category as those that scam veterans or the elderly with false promises in a bid for contributions.

"When you come up with these benevolent names for your organizations and what you're really doing is out there doing politics and political backstabbing, I don't think most Americans expected that that would be the use of the not-for-profit legal status," Becerra said while marking his first 100 days in office at a news conference. Becerra succeeded fellow Democrat Kamala Harris as California's top law enforcement official after she was elected to the U.S. Senate.

"The last thing I think most people want to find out is that all these groups that are getting tax breaks because they are not-for-profit are actually going out there and influencing our political system," he said.

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That benefits donors, who can write off their contributions as charitable tax deductions, and the beneficiaries, who enjoy different tax treatment on their property and income, he said. It harms other taxpayers, who must make up the difference in funding government services, he said. It can also skew elections, Becerra said, because voters can't discern the origin of much of the money that is now being spent on campaigns.

He wouldn't specify which groups he plans to examine.

Campaign watchdogs said the practice is rampant and praised Becerra's interest.

"There is no question that the rise of nonprofits in campaigns is overshadowing not just political parties but individual donors," said Ann Ravel, previously a member of both the Federal Elections Commission and California's Fair Political Practices Commission. "They have an enormous influence and because of that they're able to funnel money from one to another and so they have no accountability to the public."

Bob Stern, the former top lawyer at California's elections commission and formerly the president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said many nonprofits tread close to the legal line that prohibits them from backing specific candidates.

"It's tricky, because obviously you can lobby up to a certain point," he said.