Immediately after Election Day 2009, people in Lynchburg, Va., began calling and e-mailing Americans United with information about partisan intervention by Liberty University (LU).
Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., they asserted, had used the resources of the tax-exempt school to intervene in a House of Delegates race. LU’s student newspaper, Liberty Champion, ran a series of columns attacking incumbent Democrat Shannon Valentine and promoting her Republican opponent, Scott Garrett, and the school engaged in other pro-Garrett activities.
Falwell’s machinations definitely affected the outcome. Valentine was leading until returns came in from the precinct where Liberty students vote. At that point, Garrett surged ahead, winning by about 200 votes.
The Champion, while staffed by students, is subject to censorship and oversight by LU officials. It is a university-run publication, AU asserts, and thus may not, under Internal Revenue Service guidelines, be used to intervene in an election.
After a lengthy investigation, AU cited the use of the Champion and other factors in an official complaint filed with the IRS. Evidence shows that Falwell used the newspaper to influence the outcome of the election. AU notes that LU arranged to mail copies of an issue of the paper attacking Valentine to every household in Lynchburg, a practice that is not normal school procedure.
This is the third time since the death of Jerry Falwell Sr. that Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate politicking at the Falwell empire. In December of 2007, AU asked the IRS to act after Falwell Jr. used university letterhead and its e-mail system to distribute a message endorsing Mike Huckabee for president. In May of 2009, Americans United again requested IRS intervention after Liberty officials denied recognition to a student-run Democratic club while extending it to a Republican one.
In previous years, Falwell Sr. was no stranger to these types of controversies. In one notable incident from 1997, AU asked the IRS to step in after Falwell used a tax-exempt ministry to issue a fax endorsing a candidate for Virginia attorney general.
Falwell Sr. certainly knew what it was like to tangle with the IRS. His Old Time Gospel Hour had its tax exemption retroactively yanked by the IRS in 1993 and was assessed $50,000 in back taxes after the federal tax agency determined the broadcast ministry had inappropriately funneled money into congressional campaigns in 1986 and ’87.
The pattern of partisan involvement at Liberty and other Falwell ministries is clear. It’s also clear that Falwell Jr. has learned nothing from his father’s mistakes. If anything, Falwell Jr. seems even more intent on using the school to intervene in elections. He has already announced plans to affect Lynchburg City Council elections this spring.
When it comes to federal tax law, the Falwell family is a bunch of unrepentant scofflaws. They are thumbing their noses at our nation’s tax laws. This is not acceptable.
It is time for the Internal Revenue Service to act. Liberty University’s tax exemption should be revoked.