AZ secretary of state candidate’s nonprofit spending raises questions – The Arizona Republic

Reginald Bolding has run two nonprofits for five years, focused on elevating the voices of minorities and disenfranchised groups on issues from voting to the environment.

But recent actions of one those nonprofits, and the network of groups it connects with, are raising questions of potential violations as he seeks the Democratic nomination for the state’s top elections post, Arizona secretary of state.

Bolding is the founder and director of the nonprofit Our Voice Our Vote, a “dark money” organization that does not have to name its donors. Its political action committee, of which he is the designated agent for federal purposes, has paid for ads promoting his candidacy.

State law bars such committees from coordinating with candidates, and violations are subject to civil penalties.

Bolding’s challenger, Adrian Fontes, said the setup appears to break the law. Bolding said his opponent’s allegations are “disingenuous” and contends enough safeguards have been built in.

Our Voice Our Vote also is part of Activate 48, another dark money organization that has endorsed him and paid for mailers touting his campaign.

Other members of that coalition — Living United for Change, Mi Familia Vota and Chispa, an environmentally-focused nonprofit — have endorsed Bolding.

Separately, a political action committee Bolding established in 2018 gave $4,800 to his 2020 campaign, even though the PAC’s treasurer said he had no idea of the expenditure, said it was inappropriate and thought the fund was dissolved a year ago.

Bolding acknowledges the optics surrounding Our Voice Our Vote aren’t flattering. But he said he’s walled off himself and his wife, who serves as co-executive director, from its campaign-related operations. He insists it’s not the typical dark money group that forms under the guise of a social-welfare organization but is mostly focused on electioneering.

“When people talk about dark money, they’re not talking about these community organizations,” he said, referring to the work Our Voice Our Vote and its sister organization, the Arizona Coalition for Change have done.

Our Voice Our Vote works on progressive causes, from expanding access to the ballot box to supporting civil rights legislation to voter registration. In June, it hosted a virtual screening of “Suppressed and Sabotaged: The Fight to Vote,” a documentary centered on Georgia’s ballot fight in the 2020 election cycle. After the screening, Bolding participated in a question and answer session with viewers.

He likened his situation to that of Stacey Abrams, who founded the Fair Fight nonprofit in Georgia and now has received that group’s endorsement in her run for governor. Abrams no longer works with the organization.

And he blamed Adrian Fontes, his opponent in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, for the scrutiny he’s receiving.

“It’s not a coincidence they are trying to create a story,” Bolding said, adding he has seen text messages and emails from Fontes’ team shopping his nonprofit ties to reporters. “I think voters will see through it. It’s disingenuous.”

Fontes wouldn’t answer the accusation.

He said the actions of Our Voice Our Vote and Bolding have “every appearance of breaking the law.”

He pointed to Twitter posts from the nonprofit highlighting Bolding’s opposition to numerous election bills introduced by legislative Republicans — a potential sign of improper coordination between the nonprofit and the candidate’s campaign. The posts were later deleted.

“I’m not in charge of a dark money organization that is paying my salary,” Fontes said.

Creating distance from the candidate

Bolding said he established a firewall to separate himself and his wife, Cymone, from any election-related activities associated with Our Voice Our Vote.

Bolding provided an updated version of the document to The Arizona Republic. It shows the original agreement was effective June 14, 2021, the day he announced his candidacy, but amended exactly one year later.

It’s unclear what was changed in the three-page document. Danny Arellano, an attorney who represents Our Voice Our Vote, said Thursday he couldn’t talk about the agreement without advance notification from the nonprofit. He said he didn’t know when the Boldings stepped aside from political work associated with Our Voice Our Vote.

The amendment was added weeks after Our Voice Our Vote paid for a campaign flyer promoting Bolding for secretary of state and a day before he taped a segment on 12 News’ Sunday Square-Off, where host Brahm Resnick asked Bolding about the endorsement he received from his nonprofit. Bolding replied that he would expect the people who work with him to support him, a statement he has repeated several times.

What the law says about coordination

Despite his insistence that Our Voice Our Vote is not a typical dark money organization, by state law it is obligated to follow the same rules as all social welfare nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.

The law presumes coordination is happening between a candidate and a 501(c)(4) if the candidate is authorized to raise money on behalf of the organization. It is a “rebuttable presumption,” according to state statute, meaning a candidate must provide evidence to the contrary to disprove there was any illegal coordination.

This week, Activate 48, an umbrella group for a number of nonprofits, sent out campaign literature promoting Bolding. The organization earlier had endorsed Bolding. Our Voice Our Vote is one of Activate 48’s partners.

If elected, Bolding said he would resign his posts with Our Voice Our Vote and the Arizona Coalition for Change. That would probably also pertain to his wife, he said this week, but he said he has not discussed the matter with her.

Federal tax forms that Bolding shared with The Republic show the Boldings earned a combined $141,333 in 2020 running the Arizona Coalition for Change. Bolding was the only salary listed on Our Voice Our Vote’s return, earning $82,000 in 2020.

Sena Mohammed, who now runs Our Voice Our Vote operations, said the group has not yet filed its 2021 return.

No views on anti-dark money measure

At the end of 2020, Our Voice Our Vote reported a balance of $1.8 million, according to the Form 990 provided to The Republic. Its major donors were a combination of six nonprofits or foundations, including national and local organizations that promote voting rights and election issues.

The donors were the Democracy Alliance out of Washington D.C.; the Movement Voter Project out of San Francisco; Arizona Wins, a locally-based 501(c)(4); Way to Win out of Walnut, California, America Votes, also out of D.C.; and the Open Society Foundation, funded by billionaire George Soros.

Because of Our Voice Our Vote’s 501(c)(4) status, there is no requirement to disclose the names of the individuals who funded those donor organizations.

That could change if the Right to Know Act becomes law. A citizens initiative spearheaded by former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, the measure would require donor disclosure after a certain amount of money is spent by a dark money group in a campaign. The Secretary of State’s Office and county elections offices are vetting the initiative to ensure it has adequate signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Bolding has no position on the measure; he said he hasn’t had time to explore it. If elected secretary of state, and if the measure passes, he would have to administer it.

Our Voice Our Vote is silent on the initiative, although it is promoting another election related ballot measure, the Arizona Fair Elections Act.

‘A little shocked’ by donation

Four years ago, Bolding and fellow lawmaker Diego Espinoza created the Bold AZ Leadership PAC, with Bolding as director and Espinoza serving as treasurer.

The PAC supported Democratic legislative candidates and opposed Republicans in the 2018 election cycle, but ultimately failed in its goal to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans, who have held the majority for 60 years.

When the elections wrapped up, there was $17,800 left. After some expenses for a fundraising trip and paying Democratic Party dues, Espinoza said the intent was to direct the rest of the money to educational purposes. The PAC did so with a $4,870 contribution last July to the Tolleson Women’s Club to pay for scholarships.

In late March, the PAC gave $4,800 to Bolding’s campaign, campaign finance records show. It was news to Espinoza when a reporter asked about the donation.

“I’m a little shocked he sent those dollars over,” Espinoza said. He thought the PAC was dissolved after the scholarship grant was made.

Espinoza, who is backing Fontes in the Aug. 2 primary, said he has a text message exchange with Bolding from June 2021, discussing plans to shut down the PAC. That never happened: the PAC had $70 left in its coffers as of mid-April, the latest report shows. Espinoza is still listed as treasurer.

Bolding did not respond to a request to discuss the transaction. It is legal for the director of a PAC not associated with a 501(c)(4) organization to send money to his own campaign, as long as the contribution does not exceed the $5,300 limit. But by law, a 501(c)(4) can’t make a direct contribution to a candidate, although they can make independent expenditures.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.