Written by Megan Carpentier for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
West Virginians For Life, the main anti-abortion group in West Virginia, has spent much of the political season advocating for passage of an ultrasound law in West Virginia. The legislation, which would require women be offered an ultrasound before an abortion, has the support of Democratic Governor Joe Manchin, Democratic Jeff Kessler (Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman) and Roman Prezioso (Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman) and 11 delgates in the House, including some Democrats. What it doesn’t have is a single registered lobbyist from West Virginians for Life working on it, since they claim they don’t need to register.
Karen Cross, the President of West Virginians for Life and the Political Director of the National Right to Life Committee–who also used to be the executive director of West Virginians for Life–told the Charleston Gazette that she need not register because her elected position is not remunerated, calling it her “volunteer work.” She then insisted that none of the people who lobby for West Virginians for Life are registered because none of them are paid.
Cross is technically right that one of the lobbying registration standards is that lobbyists must be paid, but it’s hardly the only standard. According to the West Virginia Ethics Commission, lobbyists have to register in the state if they are compensated for lobbying or if they spend money on legislators.
If Cross or her co-workers attended any functions with legislators to which all the legislators involved weren’t invited, and spent any money to get there or at the event (like buying a round), they would be required to register; even if they weren’t paid to lobby but spent more than $150 on expenses to lobby, they would have to register; and if they spent more than 20 days and spent some money on lobbying, they would have to register. In addition, and unlike federal laws, if organizations spend more than $200 a month, or $500 in three months, to conduct a grassroots campaign — including on mailings, bulk emails(which, if run through a service, can cost money), advertising, a website or any other public relations efforts to influence legislation– they are required to register as lobbyists in the state. It is not a far leap to suggest that West Virginians for Life, including Karen Cross, are operating an undisclosed lobbying effort and grassroots campaign in violation of state ethics law.
Tax records show that West Virginians for Life is incorporated under federal law as a 501(c)4, a non-profit organization type developed specifically to get around lobbying and political activity restrictions on 501(c)3s. The only paid staff member is Melissa Adkins, identified in tax documents as the Executive Director — but identified on West Virginians for Life’s website as their “Legislative Coordinator.” Her role sounds exactly like a lobbyist:
WVFL Legislative Coordinator, Melissa Adkins, works with legislators to pass pro-life legislation and to defeat pro-choice legislation. WVFL coordinates a Pro-life Rally and Day at the Legislature in February at the state capitol. WVFL coordinates grassroots lobbying efforts through dissemination of legislative alerts, compilation and distribution of legislative voting records, maintenance of phone trees, and the posting of information on WVFL’s web page. Currently, WVFL is working with pro-life legislators to offer Informed Consent, Parental Notification, and Pro-Life License Plate bills.
For her work in 2009, Ms. Adkins received $20, 535 and worked 40 hours per week. Brian Louk is currently listed as the Executive Director on West Virginians for Life’s website, as well as treasurer of their Political Action Committee.
In addition Ms. Adkins’ lobbying-like role, West Virginians for Life’s website is more dedicated to promoting their legislative agenda than their educational efforts: their front page leads with information about the ultrasound bill, and much of the real estate is dedicated to information about abortion in the federal health care reform legislation and calls for their members to get involved in that fight as well. Their “Facts and Statistics” center — the only locally-hosted part of the site that isn’t about the organization, its legislative priorities and grassroots organizing efforts or how to donate — is rife with factual distortions like a purported link between abortion and breast cancer, claims that fetuses feel pain more intensely than children and scare-tactics about “Post Abortion Syndrome.”
Karen Cross’ job with the D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee doesn’t seem to take up all of her time, even if it is the source of her salary. The NRLC’s tax records show that Cross’ position as political director takes up an average of 1 hour of her time every week, for which she received the princely salary of $80,000, in addition to unspecified “other compensation from the organization and related organizations” to the tune of $30,570. In other words, her role as the Political Director of the NRLC, of which West Virginians for Life is an affiliate, provided her with $110,570 in 2009, and required her to work an hour a week. It likely left her a great deal of time to “volunteer” in West Virginia.
Her Facebook page also promotes her interest in and work on the West Virginia ultrasound bill — in addition to pictures of Cross posing with Delegate Mike Ross, Senators Mike Oliverio and the ultrasound legislation sponsor Kessler and Governor Manchin (a more ironic photograph features a cake with edible babies on it). Her “President’s Statement” on West Virginians for Life’s site is dedicated almost exclusively to national health care reform and links to her employer, the NRLC, and their “Stop the Abortion Agenda” project, but doesn’t disclose that she is the compensated political director of that organization (and a former registered lobbyist for it).
But even if Cross’s assertion that she isn’t getting paid to lobby in West Virginia was correct, and even if the organization wasn’t spending $200 a month on grassroots organizing despite its apparent dedication to little other than organizing around political issues, there would still be the issue of out-of-pocket expenses Cross spent on lobbyist. Even if one were to assume that the only expenses Cross incurred in her volunteer lobbying were travel expenses, she still would surpass West Virginia’s $150 threshold for registering.
West Virginians for Life, as well as Cross’s residence, are both located in Morgantown, West Virginia: 157 miles from the capital in Charleston. One round-trip drive to Charleston — for, say, the rally West Virginians for Life organized in February — reimbursed or deducted at the IRS mileage rate for 2010 of 50 cents per mile–would add up to more than $150, thus putting even Cross’s “volunteer” lobbying work over the threshold for registration in the state regardless of her income stream, duties for her official employer, or the amount her organization spends on grassroots organizing.
It’s clear that Cross and the other members and employees of WVFL aren’t simply operating in some grey area that doesn’t require them to lobby: West Virginia’s lobbying registration requirements are pretty clear when lobbyists need to register. The law is designed to bring transparency to an otherwise shadowy practice and, unlike in Washington, it doesn’t take much time or effort to reach the threshold after which one is required to register. Although WVFL bills themselves as an educational non-profit, their work and site shows that much of their efforts revolve around educating and influencing legislators, also known as lobbying. As the political director for the National Right to Life Committee, it is Cross’s well-remunerated job to know these things, albeit a job on which her employer tells the IRS she doesn’t spend much time. So why is Cross so loathe to make her lobbying work more transparent — and why is the national umbrella group paying her so much to "volunteer" for one of their state organizations? It seems like it’s just a case of simple hubris: if she’s doing God’s work, man’s laws can seem awfully petty.