An eastern Idaho man who created a new nonprofit organization to serve as a watchdog for political candidates and groups has filed a complaint against the Idaho Freedom Foundation with the IRS.
Travis Oler, a Democratic legislative candidate from Shelley, created the Hold Idaho Accountable nonprofit organization earlier this year.
One of his first actions with the nonprofit was to file a complaint with the IRS alleging that the Idaho Freedom Foundation violated its nonprofit status by engaging in excessive lobbying.
Oler is the third person who told the Idaho Capital Sun they have filed complaints against the Idaho Freedom Foundation. IRS officials confirmed they have received one of the complaints but did not confirm or deny whether the IRS was investigating the complaints, according to documents obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun.
The complaints cited in this article are not an exhaustive list of complaints against the Idaho Freedom Foundation. The complaints are included because the sources agreed to speak publicly and in detail about them.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation did not respond to emailed requests for an interview from the Idaho Capital Sun sent June 15 and July 6.
On June 22, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office sent Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Dustin Hurst a letter fining him $250 for lobbying on Idaho’s higher education budget on behalf of IFF’s attached nonprofit, Idaho Freedom Action, without first registering as a lobbyist.
Launched in 2009, the Idaho Freedom Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advocates for conservative ideas and limited government. The organization is well known for its Freedom Index, a scorecard that rates many — but not all — bills under consideration by the Legislature based on 12 criteria.
As part of the Freedom Index, the Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes a scorecard that ranks legislators based on how they vote on the bills the foundation scored. Eighteen of Idaho’s 135 legislators have a score of 90 or higher on the Freedom Index.
On top of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, it created another organization called Idaho Freedom Action with the same staff and office location. Idaho Freedom Action is registered as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, which may engage in political lobbying and limited campaign activities. Unlike a 501(c)(3), donations made to a 501(c)(4) are not tax deductible.
Oler’s complaint with the IRS
Oler said his experience looking up rules and regulations for 501(c)(3) organizations while setting up his own nonprofit informed his decision to file a complaint with the IRS.
“I thought that the Idaho Freedom Foundation is 501(c)(3), so I should set my organization up the same way,” Oler said. “I realized that would be the wrong thing to do because a 501(c)(3) is not supposed to be directly or indirectly involved in political campaigns, especially on behalf of candidates.”
Oler flagged the Freedom Index in his complaint, saying he thinks rating candidates is an endorsement. Oler doesn’t have a problem with organizations that get involved with campaigns, lobbying and elections. But he thinks the Idaho Freedom Foundation isn’t registered properly.
“If you want to be influencing political campaigns and influencing political candidates, then I think you really should not be formed as 501(c)(3),” Oler said.
Former legislator spoke out against Idaho Freedom Foundation
Former state Sen. Shawn Keough says she believes the Idaho Freedom Foundation overstepped rules by engaging in excessive lobbying.
Keough, a Republican from Sandpoint, is the longest serving female senator in Idaho history. She served 11 terms in the Idaho Senate between 1996 and 2018, finishing her career as the co-chairwoman of the powerful, budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
Keough is a member of the Idaho State Board of Education and the executive director of the Associated Logging Contractors, itself a 501(c)(6) nonprofit.
“On the political side, I believe they also flouted, and in my viewpoint continue to flout, state sunshine laws requiring lobbyists to register, although they are now registered correctly,” Keough said.
Keough was a regularly scored low on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s index. In 2016, Keough earned an F- on the organization’s scorecard. In 2018, she earned a D+.
For years, Keough said the foundation held her freedom scores against her and pushed it heavily during the campaigns after the Idaho Freedom Foundation launched in 2009.
“The campaigns I was involved with in running for the Senate, they pushed the envelope as a nonprofit organization in the type of information they put out,” Keough said. “Sometimes in the early years they went over the line, I think, in their information and were actually advocating against me and others who were up for re-election, in my view. They’ve created a separate organization (Idaho Freedom Action), but it’s still run by the same people.”
On the campaign trail, Keough said she was constantly bombarded by her F ratings from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, to the point they became a huge talking point in her races. It came via the scorecards, quotes Keough said were taken out of context and not telling the whole story about complex pieces of legislation and budgets that Keough voted for.
Keough responded by meeting with her constituents over and over again, telling them the Idaho Freedom Foundation was just one of over 200 lobbying or special interest groups that are active in Idaho. She was a legislator to represent her constituents and neighbors, Keough would say, not a special interest group like the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
“I didn’t feel pressure as much as I felt anger because it’s just not appropriate,” Keough said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m from XYZ organization and this is our perspective, we hope you can see it.’ And it’s another to attack your integrity and put a false narrative around your intentions. In my book, that’s dirty politics and has no place in Idaho.”
Keough said she complained to Hoffman and filed a complaint with the IRS, which she never heard back on.
“In my mind they clearly have crossed the line in what the IRS regulations say, even though they are wising up, I guess, they are … pushing the limits,” she said.
This article is a shortened version of an article that appeared on the website of the Idaho Capital Sun and also appeared on the front page of the Post Register and the Idaho Press. See https://idahocapitalsun.com/2021/07/07/multiple-complaints-accuse-idaho-freedom-foundation-of-breaking-nonprofit-rules/