Habitat for Humanity West Hawaii, an affiliate of the global nonprofit housing organization, has abruptly backed out of a planned fundraising event after questions were raised about whether its advertising was improperly promoting the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Duke Aiona.
The group’s executive director, Patrick Hurney, confirmed in a telephone interview Tuesday that the HarvesTea “Afternoon Tea” event to benefit Habitat for Humanity, scheduled later this month at the posh Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Kona-Kohala coast, has been cancelled.
Hurney said the action was taken after Habitat’s officers saw advertising and printed flyers featuring Aiona’s campaign logo, identifying the campaign as one of three “partners” in the event.
The ads also prominently featured a photograph of Aiona, identified simply as “Hawaii Gubernatorial Candidate,” a brief text promoting Aiona’s candidacy, and an announcement that the Duke Aiona for Governor campaign would have a “special exhibit” at the event, all presented under the nonprofit’s banner.
“We didn’t realize actual campaign ads were being included in the promotions,” Hurney said.
Hurney explained that while proceeds from the event were to be earmarked for Habitat for Humanity, the organization had only limited involvement with the actual organizing and promotion of the event.
The problem, of course, is that federal law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches. The ban on campaigning is built in to the Internal Revenue Service definition of a charitable 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Groups that violate the prohibition risk losing their nonprofit, tax-exempt status.
Hugh Jones, supervising attorney in the Tax and Charities Division of the State Attorney General’s Office, said Monday that use of the campaign’s logo in the advertisements “implies an endorsement of their campaign and is a threat to their tax exempt status.”
While the law allows nonprofit groups to hold candidate forums where all candidates participate, “you can’t allow one candidate a special appearance,” Jones said.
Jones made the same point in an Oct. 13 letter to Habitat.
However, by that time Habitat for Humanity had already decided to cancel the event, citing “the feedback that we have received from our supporters and the general public.”
How did a fundraiser billed as a Habitat for Humanity event seem to spin out of its control?
“It stared with the offer of a free yurt,” Hurney said.
Hurney said Habitat for Humanity had first been contacted by Jen McGeehan, author of “My Year in a Yurt: God’s Blessings While Living in 450-Not-So-Square Feet.”
McGeehan said she was working with Yurts of Hawaii, a local dealer offering custom-made versions of the traditional yurt design, and was able to provide a yurt at no cost. Habitat could then evaluate the design for possible future use, and make this sample available to one of its clients.
“We were certainly interested in partnering on that,” Hurney told Civil Beat.
Habitat agreed to jointly pursue a “Yurt Project” in partnership with McGeehan and Yurts of Hawaii, with McGeehan fundraising for the project.
McGeehan is also director of Women’s Ministry at New Hope Waimea, according to her promotional materials available online. The women’s ministry organized the first “HarvesTea” fundraiser in 2013.
So the event planning and organizing of the 2014 event, including production of the advertising, were primarily coordinated by McGeehan and, it seems, New Hope.
Back in August, McGeehan posted an announcement on the Duke Aiona for Governor Facebook page.
“We are very excited to confirm that Duke Aiona will be a special speaker at the 2nd Annual HarvesTea here on the Big Island, on Saturday, October 25th,” she wrote. After describing details of the planned event, she added: “Go Team Aiona!!!”
Aiona’s running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Elwin Ahu, has been affiliated with New Hope since 2000, first as “executive pastor” of the church and later as “senior pastor” for New Hope Metro in downtown Honolulu. The Aiona-Ahu ticket has openly allied with New Hope and other conservative churches, hoping they will provide a springboard to the state’s top jobs.
It didn’t take long for critics to respond once the advertisements for HarvesTea began appearing. One of those who contacted Hurney to complain about the use of the nonprofit organization to promote Aiona’s candidacy was David Tarnas, Hawaii County Chairman for the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
“Habitat for Humanity is a great organization,” Tarnas said, “but there’s no excuse for this kind of illegal campaign activity.”
Habitat for Humanity initially defended the event. Bridgett Reynolds, the group’s fundraising director, responded by email last week to one early critic, denying that inviting Aiona to make a presentation at the event crossed the line into prohibited political activity for the nonprofit group.
“Habitat for Humanity is a non-partisan organization, and does not support any political party or candidate,” Reynolds wrote. “This is not a political campaign event.”
But things were already unraveling behind the scenes.
Bo Kahui, executive director of the nonprofit La
iopua 2020 and a member of the Habitat board of directors, said he was upset when the ads were called to his attention.
“We (the board) didn’t see the materials before they were published,” Kahui said. “If they had come to the board, I would have objected right away.”
Kahui said he immediately called Hurney to discuss the issue.
“Everybody realized a mistake was made,” he said. They then advised the organizers in writing that the ads had to be revised, and that it might be necessary to cancel the event.
And on Monday, the same day Jones’ warning letter was dated, they pulled the plug and canceleld the fundraiser.
“I commend them (Habitat for Humanity) for their corrective action, because they have to protect their tax exempt status,” Tarnas said.
“But New Hope should know better,” Tarnas said, as should Aiona.
“The candidate is a former judge who should show more respect for the law,” Tarnas said. “They’ve been pushing the envelope, and I think they need to be held accountable for it.”
“This is not something new, it’s long standing,” Tarnas said, referring to the blurring of the line between the churches and political action.
He referred back to published accounts of a February 2014 gathering in a meeting room at the State Capitol where pastors from various conservative churches gathered to discuss campaign strategy, despite a ban on using the Capitol facilities for such political purposes. Duke Aiona was one of those who spoke at the meeting about his upcoming race for the governor’s seat, according to these accounts.