Corey Koscielniak’s frustrating effort to cancel a recurring donation to Hillary Clinton’s organization, Onward Together, provides a glimpse into the opaque world of quasi-political 501(c)(4) groups.
Corey Koscielniak admits that $10.48 is “a really small amount” over which to get frustrated.
But Koscielniak’s decision to cancel a recurring monthly donation of that sum to Hillary Clinton’s nonprofit organization Onward Together turned into an odyssey that’s lasted several weeks.
The organization’s webpage didn’t allow him to cancel, and a phone call to the group didn’t seem to resolve things. The situation prompted Koscielniak to file a complaint with the Washington state Attorney General’s Office.
The experience also gave the 29-year-old Clinton voter a brush with the opaque world of nonprofit, quasi-political organizations that disclose little about their operations.
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As for the trouble to cancel his donation and lack of disclosure, “I don’t expect it from anyone, corporation or not,” said Koscielniak, who added that he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder about Clinton herself.
“But what surprised me is, the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for other people and not be part of this larger industrial complex,” he added.
Nick Merrill, communications director for Clinton, said the organization has since added a feature on its webpage that allows people to cancel donations.
“We have rectified it, but we will make sure this doesn’t happen again, with anybody, in the future,” Merrill said.
Merrill added that the organization intends to reach out to Koscielniak.
Along with 87 percent of voting Seattle residents, Koscielniak cast his ballot in 2016 for Clinton. And like many Democrats, the election of Donald Trump propelled Koscielniak to a new level of political engagement.
Last year, he made nearly a dozen donations to political candidates or causes through the organization Act Blue. And last May, he signed on as a monthly recurring donor to Onward Together. Like similar nonprofits, Onward Together is a tax-exempt social-welfare organization referred to by its number in the federal tax code, 501(c)(4).
Republican strategist Karl Rove has been involved in one, as has former President Barack Obama. Such groups sometimes fill murky roles — they can engage in some political activity, as long as that isn’t their primary role.
Paul S. Ryan of the watchdog group Common Cause said 501(c)(4) organizations are “classic dark-money groups” because federal law doesn’t require them to disclose their donors.
In some cases, that has led to deep-pocketed donors contributing to 501(c)(4) organizations, which then give to political action committees that spend on elections. The arrangement allows the original contributors to remain concealed.
“Is there any accountability for donors? The short answer is no,” said Ryan, who is vice president for policy and litigation of the watchgroup based in Washington, D.C.
Ryan described Koscielniak’s experience trying to stop his recurring donation as something that “would fall into the category of bad management.”
Merrill said Onward Together is geared solely toward helping progressive organizing groups, and not toward shifting contributions into such things as campaign ads. In 2017, Onward Together gave a little more than $1 million total to various groups, Merrill said, “and we’ll plan to do more in 2018.”
According to its website, Onward Together supports “organizations that have proven success in organizing around our shared progressive values, mobilizing voters, or running candidates for office.”
The organization supports political advocacy groups such as Color of Change, Emerge America, Indivisible, Swing Left and Run for Something. Onward Together provides those organizations services that include grants, help with fundraising, mentorship and introductions to potential donors, its website says.
Koscielniak says he decided to cancel his donation in March because there was scant information about how the money was spent. That’s when he discovered that Onward Together didn’t have a button on its website to cancel or change contributions.
“Onward Together (OT) accepts payment information, but provides no ability to alter or cancel donations once the initial donation is received,” he wrote in his complaint to the Attorney General’s Office. “I started contributing in May 2017, but have never received a receipt for my monthly contributions.”
Next, he tried a phone number listed on the website.
“The person who answered my call (Kelly) said that she can cancel payment for me, and that they’ve received several callers expressing frustration with their process,” Koscielniak wrote in the complaint. “She told me they will not put a contact # or address on their website due to security reasons. This feels both deceptive and unethical.”
The Attorney General’s Office has no legal authority to compel Onward Together to respond to inquiries. But after receiving Koscielniak’s complaint, it emailed the organization on March 22 and asked for a response within three weeks. On April 10, the office sent a follow-up inquiry.
On April 17, Onward Together withdrew another $10.48 from Koscielniak’s account. The next day, while on the phone with a reporter, Koscielniak used the new website feature to cancel his donation — again.
As of Friday, the organization had not responded to the Attorney General’s Office, said spokeswoman Brionna Aho, and the complaint remains open. Merrill said Onward Together intends to respond to the Attorney General’s Office, and he confirmed that Koscielniak’s contribution is canceled.
But Koscielniak said he won’t know for sure until his next bank statement.
“I guess we’ll see next month,” he said.