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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Laurie MacDonald facing questions about charity’s role in defunct Congressional bid

A woman smiles as she talks to another woman.
Oliver Morrison
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90.5 WESA
Laurie MacDonald ran against U.S. Rep. Summer Lee and Bhavini Patel in the Democratic primary for the 12th congressional district, but dropped out before the election. 

A statewide anti-domestic violence nonprofit organization is questioning whether Laurie MacDonald's campaign for Congress improperly drew on the resources of the Center for Victims, the charity she runs.

Experts say the questions reflect the risks any charity faces when employees become active in electoral politics — though MacDonald says she’s done nothing wrong.

“I would never do anything to jeopardize this organization, ever,” MacDonald, the president and CEO of the Center for Victims, told WESA. “It’s been my life’s mission.”

MacDonald held her Jan. 9 kickoff at the charity’s South Side headquarters. Its staff and offices — along with its logo — appeared repeatedly in campaign messaging and other media. And in a 30-second TV ad, she identified herself as the “CEO of the Center for Victims, where I fight for victims’ rights, not criminals’ rights.”

MacDonald’s Democratic primary bid ended in March, amid a challenge to her election petitions. On May 1, Susan Higginbotham, who heads the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, sent a letter asking MacDonald to clarify whether the Center had any role in the bid.

“It appears that the Center for Victims’ building and staff were displayed prominently in the campaign materials, thus potentially placing the organization at risk for accusations of political behavior,” Higginbotham wrote.

A screenshot from Laurie MacDonald's X profile.
Screenshot
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X
A screenshot from Laurie MacDonald's X profile.

“The office should not be used for campaign receptions, meetings with campaign sponsors, press briefings and media interviews,” the letter said. Such campaign activities “could potentially jeopardize the not-for-profit status of the Center.” It asks for details about “safeguards the Center for Victims put in place” to protect that status.

PCADV administers state and federal grants annually to victims groups statewide: It supports the cost of a shelter at the Center, providing about 8 percent of its $7 million budget. In a statement to WESA, PCADV said it “conducts routine periodic monitoring of all sub-grantees to ensure that the funding is being utilized for the approved purposes.”

Under the federal tax code, tax-exempt charities like the Center “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in … any political campaign.” Running afoul of that requirement “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status,” the IRS says, though the agency can take less drastic steps, such as charging excise taxes.

Don Kramer, a Philadelphia-based attorney who edits the Nonprofit Issues newsletter, said, “To run for office while running a charitable organization is particularly difficult” because of the federal bar on political activity.

Kramer said he’d have one piece of advice for any charity leader who wanted to run for office: “Take a leave of absence.”

‘I am Center for Victims’

Center for Victims serves more than 17,000 crime victims each year from a facility that includes the shelter, a 24-hour hotline, music and art therapy, and a science center-style exhibit about trauma.

MacDonald and the Center’s board president, John Rago, said they kept it insulated from her Congressional bid.

“I want to assure you that no [Center for Victims] funds whatsoever, from whatever source, were used to support the MacDonald Campaign,” said Rago in a written reply to Higginbotham.

“When Laurie told me she was thinking of running, I told her, ‘As far as the Center is concerned, we have to play this by certain rules,’” Rago told WESA. “There was never any tension over that.”

Asked whether he was uncomfortable seeing the Center featured in campaign materials, Rago said a candidate’s professional accomplishments deserve discussion.

“You can’t say someone is disqualified from running for office because they are running a nonprofit,” he said. “She’s worked there 20 years, and Laurie is a presence and a force of nature in that field. … If it got to the point where I felt she was exploiting that, I would have had a conversation with her.”

“I am Center for Victims,” MacDonald said. “I've dedicated my life to this project, and you can't separate me from it. It's who I am.

“There’s nothing wrong with using your office so that people know where you are,” she said. “Don't you want victims to come and see us?”

Rago wrote to PCADV last month that “any use of the [Center’s] building by her for her campaign would require a rental fee … which was done,” and that the campaign was run from the South Side co-working space CoHatch.

“Ms. MacDonald’s final campaign finance report is not yet published but will be available to the public,” he wrote in that correspondence.

PCADV declined to discuss Rago’s reply. But financial information on MacDonald’s campaign has been long in coming: MacDonald did not file a federal campaign finance report until June 10 — nearly two months after a mid-April deadline.

That report makes no mention of a rental fee, nor of rent payments to CoHatch. MacDonald ascribed that to the difficulty of compiling and uploading FEC reports, and she said she would file an amended report in the future. She also provided a receipt showing a partial payment to CoHatch and a $100 check for “Room rental” paid by MacDonald to the Center.

Those expenses were included in a separate report MacDonald filed earlier with the state elections office — which does not oversee financial activity by candidates for federal office — and sent last month to WESA. That form shows her paying the $100 fee, as well as $2,500 for the CoHatch space.

The two reports also include a different accounting of contributions, debts owed, and other expenses. MacDonald attributed some mistakes to “bad math on my part,” but she said in general the controversy was “trying to make a mountain out of a molehill."

Both reports say the campaign owes $10,000 to Flo Communications, a public relations firm that MacDonald said the Center itself might hire.

“I thought she did such a good job I want to hire her,” she said of Flo Communications CEO Yvonne Bailey. Asked whether it would blur boundaries for the charity she runs to hire a firm to which her campaign owes money, MacDonald said, “We’ll address that if it happens.”

‘3,000 ways to get out of it’

PCADV’s letter also warned that, based on campaign materials that showed MacDonald and Center staff together, campaign activities may have taken place “at least in part from the office during normal work hours.” That could mean they may have been “utilizing resources,” including MacDonald’s own salary, “for purposes other than the grant objectives.”

MacDonald said staff who appeared in photos shot for the campaign did so voluntarily: “I gave them 3,000 ways to get out of it if they wanted to.” Her campaign finance report shows a $500 donation from a part-time Center employee: MacDonald describes him as a longstanding personal friend. And MacDonald acknowledged the Center’s director of operations, Stephanie Fox, helped with some campaign work.

“She would be furious if I didn’t let her participate,” MacDonald said of Fox, who herself once ran for state legislature.

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Fox said she had no comment at this time.

Employees of a charity are allowed to volunteer on behalf of a colleague’s run for office. But the Alliance for Justice, which assists nonprofit organizations that engage in advocacy, urges that charities “be careful that the organization is not pressuring any other employee.”

In an email to staff sent just before her Jan. 9 campaign kickoff, MacDonald invited employees to “attend if you would like to, but this is not mandatory by any means.” And she and Rago say that if MacDonald had won the primary, she would have taken a leave of absence through the general election.

Rago said he didn’t ask her to take a leave for the primary “because anything can happen” in such contests. But in a heavily Democratic district such as the 12th, the primary can essentially decide the winner in November.

MacDonald told WESA she was “naive” about such dynamics and thought, “Until I get on the ballot [as the Democratic nominee], it’s nothing.”

In any case, the email to Center staff did not mention the possibility of a leave. Until the April 23 primary, it said, “I will be campaigning but I will [be] fully involved with the [Center for Victims] as well in my current capacity.” And if she won, she said, “There will be intermittent campaigning until the general election, but the experts believe the winner, for all intents and purposes will be decided in the Primary.

“All in all, nothing much will change until next year,” the email concluded.

MacDonald said the point of the email was to ensure staff knew “everything’s going to be okay” amid her candidacy, and that she’d be available to offer guidance if needed. “They rely on me around here.”

An ‘ax to grind’?

MacDonald and PCADV had a complicated history long before her campaign got underway.

Allegheny County court documents show that MacDonald and the Center sued PCADV — including its then-executive director and a number of employees and board members — in 2016.

Among other claims, the suit alleged defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, allegedly as retaliation for complaints MacDonald had made against PCADV that were cited in a state audit. MacDonald’s lawsuit also alleged the Center for Victims lost funding because of the dispute.

PCADV responded at the time that MacDonald’s claims were without merit. But the agency had to repay some state funds after a poor state audit in 2016 and, and its prior executive director stepped down following a settlement agreement with the state. MacDonald’s lawsuit was later settled, court records show, and Higginbotham joined the PCADV in September 2017, after the litigation ended.

PCADV did not respond to a query about whether that history played a role in its dealings with the Center. And while MacDonald said she was barred from discussing the matter by terms of the settlement, she said, “PCADV has an ax to grind.”

Most Center for Victims board members, including former Gov. Tom Corbett, either did not respond, could not be reached, or declined to comment. An assistant to Allegheny County District Attorney Steven A. Zappala Jr., who serves as an ex officio board member, said he “spoke with Prof. Rago and was assured that no Center for Victims resources were expended” on the campaign.

MacDonald may not have abandoned her hopes of running in the 12th District. She has floated the possibility of running as a Republican, though the GOP already has a nominee in James Hayes, and as an independent.

“I’m not going to rule it out if there was an opportunity” to run this year, either as a write-in this fall or through some other means, she told WESA.

And if that didn’t happen, she said, she’d likely run in 2026.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.