- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A public interest group that pushes for immigration controls has asked Maryland to investigate the tax-exempt status of CASA de Maryland, a high-profile immigrant rights group that the Immigration Reform Law Institute says repeatedly engaged in political advocacy, breaking the law governing nonprofits.

In lengthy complaints sent to several Maryland agencies over the past week, IRLI charged that CASA regularly lobbies the state on legislation, endorses political candidates and supports Democrats through get-out-the-vote volunteer efforts, all while taking tax-deductible donations as a nonprofit.

In one instance uncovered by IRLI, CASA is listed as having endorsed Peter V.R. Franchot in one of his campaigns for comptroller of Maryland. As comptroller, Mr. Franchot administers some of the tax breaks for which CASA is eligible. The Office of the Comptroller is one of the offices with which IRLI filed its complaint.

IRLI also sent the complaint to the Internal Revenue Service last year, asking it to rescind CASA’s tax-exempt status at the federal level.

“IRLI wants the IRS and state agencies to cut off CASA’s source of tax-exempt money and state funding, so it can’t use taxpayer money for political purposes,” said Monique A. Miles, a staff attorney for IRLI. “CASA thinks it’s too big and well-connected to fail, like ACORN did, but there are watchdog organizations like IRLI who are looking out for taxpayers’ best interests.”

CASA denied the charges, and Political Director Kim Propeack said IRLI’s complaint is a “blatant attempt to distract or hinder CASA.”

Ms. Propeack said the organization has been audited for the past five years by Ribis, Jones & Maresca, an accounting firm that helps dozens of nonprofits, and she said CASA adheres to strict procedures that make sure it stays within the law.

CASA insists on the highest standards for operations, including compliance with all regulations,” she said. “We perform annual compliance reviews with outside legal counsel, and every staff member attends mandatory compliance training.”

She said Mr. Franchot’s case was an error on the part of his campaign, not CASA‘s.

It’s not uncommon for one group to question whether an opposing organization is playing by the rules, though the IRS rarely takes action unless the violation is egregious.

Still, the charges against CASA underscore just how much room there is in the list of activities allowed under the law.

CASA, whose full name is Central American Solidarity and Assistance of Maryland, organized in 1985 as a 501(c)(3), which grants special tax status to religious, charitable or educational groups. Donations to those groups are tax-deductible and the organizations get other tax exemptions. But with that comes strict rules on what groups can do — including a ban on most political activity, and limits on lobbying.

CASA offers services and referrals to low-income Hispanics, and is a major player in the national immigration debate. It also runs day-laborer centers in Maryland, often aided by taxpayers’ funding.

Political reach

Several years ago, CASA created a specific political arm, CASA in Action, which is incorporated under a different section of the tax code and is allowed to take political stances, though donations to that group are not tax-deductible. Ms. Propeack is director of CASA in Action.

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