Financial Incest at Fidelis? (The Catholic Right, Thirtieth in a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat May 26, 2007 at 02:40:05 PM EST
As we all know the craft of the magician is to use slight of hand, diversions and ruses of all kinds to perform feats of illusion that astound and entertain us. Good political scandals often arise by use of the same technique. Certain ethically challenged groups and individuals launder funds and bend or even break laws to accomplish their political purposes. We have seen this repeatedly as Religious Right groups and sometimes, individual churches, have flagrantly violated the privilege of federal tax exemption in the pursuit of political power.

But sometimes, these violations are not nearly interesting enough to be that "entertaining." Sometimes they are just mind-numbingly mundane. I am wondering whether that may be the case with Fidelis, whose web site blurs the identities and functions of what they call a "family" of organizations. As we shall see below, Fidelis has a unique web site which houses the family, but it is not at all clear whether there are separate pots of money for each member of the family, and clear segregation of funds as federal tax and election laws require.

Last week I inquired whether the Catholic League may have violated its 501(c)(3) status by engaging in tag-team attacks on Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. This week we look at their partner, Fidelis.

As I previously discussed, Fidelis (a 501(c)(4) political advocacy group) has been tag-teaming with Bill Donohue's Catholic League to criticize Rudy Giuliani's position on abortion. But on May 23rd, Fidelis declared war.

The days prior to the declaration of war were filled with self-important bluster in the style of Bill Donohue. Fidelis honcho, Joseph Cella, expounded:  

"This is the third position Rudy Giuliani has had on abortion in two weeks, and his credibility with faithful Catholics and other pro-life voters is beginning to evaporate."

Cella closed his screed with this zinger, "Giuliani shares the exact same position on abortion as fellow Catholic John Kerry. As more people of faith who are pro-life begin to realize this, they will reject Giuliani's candidacy."

Two days later on May 16, 2007 Fidelis announced that it was organizing anti-Giuliani protests during the GOP Presidential Debates then being held in Columbia, South Carolina . Cella also announced:

'Fidelis America PAC, the political action arm of Fidelis, will distribute flyers and stickers prior to tonight's debate. The stickers read: "Protect the Pro-Life Platform. Defeat Rudy Giuliani."'

But a little scratching below the surface reveals that these seemingly coordinated attacks on Giuliani may be driven more by plain old politics rather than by ultra-orthodox Catholic outrage. As I previously noted:

It is worth noting that Fidelis's Burch and Cella both have very close ties to Pizza-man Tom Monaghan, who in turn, sits on Presidential candidate U.S. Senator Sam Brownback's (R-Ks.) Exploratory Committee. Monaghan also sits on the Catholic League's Board of Advisors.

But more importantly, all this brings us to a possible legal problem for the Fidelis family, as the activities of one family member may get another in trouble.  (Daddy Cella ought to know better.)   At the bottom of both of the Giuliani-targeted Fidelis press releases is a statement very much worth noting:

Paid for by Fidelis America PAC_P.O. Box 277 Chelsea, MI 48118_Joseph J. Cella, Treasurer_Not Authorized by Any Candidate or Committee

These releases-very clearly designed to influence the 2008 presidential election--are posted on what appears to be the joint web site for several related organizations,
Fidelis, Fidelis America, Fidelis Media Fund, and Fidelis Center for Law and Policy, respectively, a political lobby, a PAC, a 527 political committee. On donation page the organization describes itself as a 501 (c)(4) tax-exempt organization, but has no separate donation capability for its PAC.

Yet when the site visitor clicks on at Learn more about the distinction between these components of Fidelis we see that the Fidelis Center for Law and Policy is a 501(c)(3); Fidelis America is a hard money PAC while the Fidelis Media Fund is soft money (being a "527"). Only Fidelis holds itself out as having filed for (c)(4) status.

While it is not clear is which legal entity actually controls the web site, there is a potential issue here in the possible commingling of donations since the site serves as the portal for the (c)(4) as well as the 527 political action committee. It is an unusual, hazy situation that might pique the interest of the IRS as well as the Federal Election Commission.

According to the Fidelis's Form 990 for tax year 2005 filed in November 2006, from a total amount of $54,048 in received contributions, a salary of $21,076 was paid to its president Joseph Cella. But a little digging shows the PAC to the classic Astroturf organization with little-to-no popular support (it appears that an Ann and James Longron making $10,000 worth of the group's $10,875 2006 donations).

This raises the question of how donations are distributed. Additionally, it is fair to wonder whether Fidelis is using tax-deductible donations destined for their 501(c)(3) instead to maintain and run their 501(c)(4) and PAC for which donations are not tax-deductible? If so, that is prohibited activity.

Most organizations that have sister entities, are very careful to show that they are functioning independently, and are in compliance with federal law. In an age of heightened scrutiny of political abuses by tax-exempt organization, you would think that Fidelis would get with the times and not behave in ways that suggest they have something to hide.  It is more than a little odd, that the Fidelis family, seems to be a little too all in the family.

Fred Clarkson contributed to this piece.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :
Part One  Part Two  Part Three   Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine

Cella has ties to Monaghan (as does Donohue) who, in turn, has ties to Brownback.

While I am no fan of Giuliani, the Brownback team fully understands that greater Catholic support for a pro-choice Catholic such as Giuliani over their Opus Dei flavored candidate exposes that their agenda has little to do with representing the views of their more mainstream (and more numerous) coreligionists.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat May 26, 2007 at 02:49:06 PM EST

My thought is that I won't hold my breath to see the IRS go after the Catholic League or Fidelis under the current administration. The IRS now is more exercised about churches whose ministers or priests give anti-Bush sermons. Monaghan may think he can put Brownback in, but I don't think Brownback would get much of a following outside the Christian Right (in either its Catholic or Protestant manifestations.) Brownback is not likely to get the nod from the people with the big bucks, but Giuliani might. We might well see the Republican coalition disintegrate under this infighting. Like you, I am not convinced that Monaghan and Cella are fighting for their vision of Catholic orthodoxy, but agree that they are backing Brownback.


by khughes1963 on Sat May 26, 2007 at 06:51:40 PM EST

Kathy, There is, to my knowledge, exactly one church in the U.S. Kathy, that has been a matter of IRS investigation because of an antiwar sermon.  I read the sermon, and  in my view, it crossed the line, albeit not by much.

The way it works is this:  The IRS does not launch investigations of c3s absent a credible complaint. After the 04 elections, where there were a lot of complaints, they set up a new enforcement mechanism that was their best effort to increase enforcement, while maintaining the appearance and fact of fairness.  I believe they are doing just that.

If anyone wants to make a complaint the IRS, all they have to do is assemble the best evidence they have of a violation and file the complaint. It would be best, however, to get a group with knowledge and experience in this, like Catholics for a Free Choice or Americans United for Separation of Church and State to do the job.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat May 26, 2007 at 08:20:58 PM EST

This whole tag-teaming by Donohue and Fidelis needs to be discussed. Hopefully Kathy, if some folks in the mainstream media pick up on this, hopefully it will get some traction and more closely examined.

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