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Franklin Graham, right, greets Samaritan's Purse volunteers. Photo courtesy Samaritan's Purse

Originally published: 2013-05-15 10:52:45
Last modified: 2013-05-17 10:57:16

Graham: IRS targeted Samaritan's Purse

by Anna Oakes

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and president of Boone-based Christian international relief organization Samaritan's Purse, said in a letter to President Barack Obama Tuesday he believes his organization was among the conservative groups targeted by the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS apologized May 10 for targeting conservative political groups during the 2012 election season to check up on their tax-exempt status. Graham said he now believes that IRS visits to Samaritan's Purse on Oct. 15, 2012, and to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Oct. 29 last year were part of that effort.

"I write today to inform you this profiling by the IRS was not limited to conservative political organizations; indeed, it extended to religious charities -- Jewish and Christian -- as well," Graham said in the letter. "I am bringing this to your attention because I believe that someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us."

Graham noted that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association published advertisements last year -- including in this newspaper -- endorsing North Carolina's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and national ads urging citizens to "vote for biblical values" in the general election.

Graham said Samaritan's Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- of which he is also president -- both received notification from the IRS Sept. 6, 2012, that a review would be conducted for the 2010 tax year.

The IRS found that both organizations continued to qualify for tax-exempt status and notified the groups of its findings after the election, Graham said.

"There were no problems with the audits. In fact, the auditors praised Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for being such effectively run organizations," said Todd Shearer of The DeMoss Group, a public relations firm that represents Graham, Samaritan's Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

But critics -- including Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State -- have accused the ministries of abusing their tax-exempt status by improperly engaging in political activity.Under federal law, 501(c)(3) organizations "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates," according to the IRS.

Organizations on both sides of North Carolina's marriage amendment issue advised churches last year that it is legal for tax-exempt organizations to speak out on issues, but illegal to endorse specific candidates.

Prior to last year's presidential election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney met with Billy and Franklin Graham, and shortly afterward the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association published a photo of the meeting and advertisements with statements from Billy Graham, including "I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."

As presidential candidates, Romney opposed gay marriage, while Obama expressed support for it.
Obama announced Wednesday that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had ordered acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to resign. In a statement Tuesday, the president called the IRS' targeting of conservative groups "intolerable and inexcusable."

Graham said aiding the IRS agents with the reviews wasted the "precious resources" of the ministries -- "Franklin was referencing the fact that staff had to be diverted from their regular work with the ministries to respond to the audits," Shearer clarified.

Samaritan's Purse is one of the largest employers in Watauga County. In 2011, the organization's reported revenue was in excess of $388 million, primarily from contributions and grants, according to the IRS. Its expenses for that year were reported as $350 million.

Shearer said Graham is traveling overseas for projects related to Samaritan's Purse and is unavailable for comment.