Leaning Right in Hollywood, Under a Lens
By MICHAEL CIEPLY and NICHOLAS CONFESSOREJAN. 22, 2014
LOS ANGELES — In a famously left-leaning Hollywood, where Democratic fund-raisers fill the social calendar, Friends of Abe stands out as a conservative group that bucks the prevailing political winds.
A collection of perhaps 1,500 right-leaning players in the entertainment industry, Friends of Abe keeps a low profile and fiercely protects its membership list, to avoid what it presumes would result in a sort of 21st-century blacklist, albeit on the other side of the partisan spectrum.
Now the Internal Revenue Service is reviewing the group’s activities in connection with its application for tax-exempt status. Last week, federal tax authorities presented the group with a 10-point request for detailed information about its meetings with politicians like Paul D. Ryan, Thaddeus McCotter and Herman Cain, among other matters, according to people briefed on the inquiry.
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the organization’s confidentiality strictures, and to avoid complicating discussions with the I.R.S.
The actors Gary Sinise, left, and Jon Voight are among the few whose affiliation with Friends of Abe is public knowledge. Left, Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; right, Bret Hartman/Reuters
Those people said that the application had been under review for roughly two years, and had at one point included a demand — which was not met — for enhanced access to the group’s security-protected website, which would have revealed member names. Tax experts said that an organization’s membership list is information that would not typically be required. The I.R.S. already had access to the site’s basic levels, a request it considers routine for applications for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Friends of Abe — the name refers to Abraham Lincoln — has strongly discouraged the naming of its members. That policy even prohibits the use of cameras at group events, to avoid the unwilling identification of all but a few associates — the actors Gary Sinise, Jon Voight and Kelsey Grammer, or the writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, for instance — who have spoken openly about their conservative political views.
The I.R.S. request comes in the face of a continuing congressional investigation into the agency’s reviews of political nonprofits, most of them conservative-leaning, which provoked outrage on the right and forced the departure last year of several high-ranking I.R.S. officials. But unlike most of those groups, which had sought I.R.S. approval for a mix of election campaigning and nonpartisan issue advocacy, Friends of Abe is seeking a far more restrictive tax status, known as 501(c)(3), that would let donors claim a tax deduction, but strictly prohibits any form of partisan activity.
The group is not currently designated tax-exempt, but it behaves as a nonprofit and has almost no formal structure, people briefed on the matter said. The I.R.S. review will determine whether Friends of Abe receives tax-exempt status that would provide legal footing similar to that of the People for the American Way Foundation, a progressive group fostered by the television producer Norman Lear and others. If not, Friends of Abe could resort to the courts, or it might simply operate as a nonprofit, but it would be unable to receive tax-deductible contributions.
Jeremy Boreing, executive director of Friends of Abe, declined on Wednesday to discuss details of the tax review, but said the group would continue regardless of outcome.
“Certainly, it’s been a long process,” he said.
“Friends of Abe has absolutely no political agenda,” he added. “It exists to create fellowship among like-minded individuals.”
People for the American Way, Mr. Lear’s group, stands as something of a liberal counterpart to Friends of Abe, though the organization is far larger, with an affiliate that spends millions of dollars a year on issue advocacy in Washington and beyond. But the entertainment industry has been crisscrossed by progressive groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, which maintains a tax-exempt educational adjunct under the 501(c)(3) provision, and includes the producer Laurie David and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio among its trustees. Another, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, is a nonprofit that supports marriage rights for gay people and counts the producer Bruce Cohen and the writer Dustin Lance Black among its founders.
In the request last week, tax officials combined broad questions about membership criteria and social events, according to the people briefed on the matter, with pointed queries about meetings with a Los Angeles mayoral candidate, Kevin James, and Republican politicians like Mr. Ryan, Mr. Cain and Rick Santorum.
Officials particularly wanted to know why a speech introducing Mr. Cain at a Friends of Abe event in November 2011 — when he was a presidential candidate — should not be regarded as potentially prohibited political campaign support.
While tax-exempt groups are permitted to invite candidates to speak at events, it is not uncommon for the I.R.S. to scrutinize such activities to determine whether they cross the line into partisan election activity. One issue is whether the organization invites all the qualified candidates.
“The I.R.S. would say that if you are inviting only conservative candidates, that’s a problem,” said Marcus S. Owens, a former director of the I.R.S.’s exempt organizations division. “But it’s never really been litigated.”
Ofer Lion, a lawyer representing Friends of Abe in its application for tax-exempt status, declined to comment.
Friends of Abe began about nine years ago as little more than an email chain linking conservative stars, filmmakers and other Hollywood figures who were generally reluctant to openly discuss their views. The name is a take on Friends of Bill, the circle of loyalists who have adhered to Bill Clinton over the years.
Mr. Sinise was a leading voice among those who in early 2005 gathered at Morton’s Steakhouse here for an informal dinner that members have since identified as the group’s closest approach to an actual founding moment.
As Friends of Abe grew, however, Mr. Sinise withdrew from active leadership, and Mr. Boreing, a film producer and director, took charge.
Membership has been defined mostly by access to a private website (there are no dues, but enhanced online access requires a small fee), and attendance at a growing number of events that have included meetings with political operatives like Karl Rove and Frank Luntz; politicians like Michele Bachmann and John Boehner; and media figures like Ann Coulter, Dennis Miller and Mark Levin.
The recent I.R.S. query did not mention the earlier request for access to the names of members, people briefed on the query said.
But a remaining question is whether at least some of the group’s politically oriented encounters will be interpreted as campaign activity, and weigh against its bid for tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) organization, devoted to educational or charitable work.
A spokesman for the I.R.S. on Wednesday said it was prohibited from commenting on specific taxpayer activity.
Tax officials and congressional overseers have been embroiled in a debate over the enforcement of rules that restrict campaign activity by tax-exempt groups since last year, when an I.R.S. official acknowledged that officers had improperly targeted Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny. But most of those groups were seeking recognition as so-called 501(c)(4) groups, whose ability to conduct a limited amount of campaign activity is governed by a vague patchwork of rules and standards. In November, in an effort to make the process both more transparent and more rigorous, the I.R.S. announced that it would begin formulating new rules.