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Nonprofit mapped political path for state Sen. Sam Blakeslee

Though the state senator has said he plans to leave politics to run a nonprofit, an early blueprint for the organization laid out plans to make him a candidate for statewide office in 2014.

August 09, 2012|By Evan Halper and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a moderate Republican, has said he plans to leave politics to run the nonprofit California Reform Institute.
State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a moderate Republican, has said he plans to leave… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — Sam Blakeslee said he was putting personal ambition aside. The maverick GOP lawmaker from San Luis Obispo announced he would leave politics to run a nonprofit bankrolled by a big donor.

His only aim at the California Reform Institute would be to promote common-sense solutions to big policy problems vexing Sacramento.

An early "Strategic Plan" for the nonprofit reviewed by The Times, however, lays out a different goal: "Devise and execute a plan that makes Blakeslee a politically viable candidate for Republican statewide office in 2014."

The July 2011 document maps out how the institute's policy proposals would be a vehicle to "create messenger credibility" needed to make "a Blakeslee gubernatorial bid feasible." It suggests the state senator, whose standing as a moderate makes him a rare GOP politician with statewide appeal, spend his final months in the Legislature grabbing the media spotlight with bills intended to provoke Democrats.

The plan was never meant for public consumption, and now it could be a legal liability. The IRS has tended to consider boosting the political prospects of a candidate an unacceptable mission for a nonprofit, which taxpayers subsidize.

"Why did they ever write this down, and where was their lawyer when they did?" said Frances Hill, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and a national authority on the use of certain types of nonprofits, such as Blakeslee's.

The senator's blueprint, she said, suggests the California Reform Institute was designed as "a political campaign with a long view."

Blakeslee, a former Assembly minority leader who has crusaded to ban gifts to politicians and has been critical of lawmaker junkets organized by nonprofits, says the plan reflects early "blue-sky thinking" and was scrapped. He repeated in an interview last month that he will be done with politics when his Senate term ends this year.

"I am not planning on running for either statewide office or any other office," he said.

He has collected $23,000 this year in a campaign account for the 2014 treasurer's race.

Representatives of the IRS would not discuss Blakeslee's institute. But in June, the agency released a ruling that stripped tax-exempt status from another think tank, created by a different politician, whose name was omitted from the document, along with other details. The IRS concluded that the organization's activities, while not explicitly campaign oriented, dovetailed too closely with its founder's political agenda.

The California Reform Institute's nonprofit category, 501(c)4, allows for limited political activity if the entity promotes "social welfare," according to IRS regulations. Many politicians have used such organizations to promote policy agendas, raise money for their travel and fund athletic tournaments and other events popular with voters.

Crossroads GPS, co-founded by former White House advisor Karl Rove, is one; it bankrolls television ads attacking Democrats on policy issues.

A 501(c)4 "must be operated for a broad community benefit and not a private purpose," said Marc Owens, aWashington, D.C., attorney and former director of the exempt organizations division of the IRS.

He said the California Reform Institute was wise to toss out its initial strategic plan — but that doesn't necessarily put it in the clear. "The IRS will look at the reality and not just statements on whether or not this organization is being used for private benefit," Owens said.

Blakeslee's nonprofit was jump-started with $750,000 from Charles Munger Jr., a wealthy California GOP activist who has been working to push the party in a more moderate direction. Blakeslee's chief of staff was named as the institute's chief executive, according to papers the organization filed with the state in January, and another staffer was identified as its secretary.

The designated chief executive, Christine Robertson, said recently that she has stepped down for now. But a letter from Munger's attorney to the institute's officials' attorney said it is "anticipated" that she will become the compensated executive director when Blakeslee's term ends.

Blakeslee said he would take no salary. Munger says his own goal is strictly about policy.

"I did not discuss with Sen. Blakeslee the possibility of this being a vehicle that would propel him to statewide office," Munger said. "Whatever other ideas were developed in Blakeslee's shop, that's not what I signed on for and it's not what the institute is set up for."

The reach for higher office was taken out of the institute's bylaws by the time Munger committed his money and before Blakeslee went public with his plans in May. On paper, the California Reform Institute now exists to serve the people of California and not one particular politician.

The early strategy that Blakeslee and his associates drafted included plans for him to write pieces of legislation "knowing they will ultimately be thwarted" by Democrats and their allies. Such a move "provides important historical narrative that authenticates passion for major reforms before becoming a candidate for governor," the document said.

The legislation would be submitted with "heavy emphasis on public relations and press strategy," said the plan.

It also contained a timeline of other actions, including writing a book, enlisting lobbyists to help raise money and tapping into Munger's network of well-to-do donors. It ended in June of next year with: "Announce Candidacy."

evan.halper@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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