California AG Designate Has History With Charities

January 3, 2017       Mark Hrywna      

California Gov. Jerry Brown officially nominated Congressman Xavier Becerra to replace Attorney General Kamala Harris, who was sworn in to the U.S. Senate this morning. The nomination is subject to confirmation by the state Assembly and Senate, which have 90 days to act. The  Assembly has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Tuesday.

Brown first announced the appointment on Dec. 1 but it was not officially submitted until Harris resigned to take the Senate seat. She won election in November to the Senate seat of the retiring Barbara Boxer. Kathleen Alice Kenealy, chief deputy attorney general, will serve as acting attorney general until Becerra is confirmed.

Becerra, 58, is a former deputy attorney general who has served in Congress since 1992. He was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and the first Latino member of the Committee on Ways and Means, as well as ranking member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. Prior to his election to Congress, Becerra served in the state Assembly from 1990 to 1992 and was deputy attorney general from 1987 to 1990. He holds a law degree from Stanford Law School and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University.

Harris was elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. Becerra would complete the final two years of her second term, which expires in 2018.

Becerra isn’t expected to stray far from Harris’ perspective on charity regulation. The California Attorney General’s Office has been embroiled in litigation regarding its regulations to require filing donor information for a number of years.

Schedule B includes names and addresses of individuals who donate more than $5,000 during the tax year to a nonprofit. Schedule B is included when an organization files its annual Form 990 with the IRS but it is not made public.

The Center for Competitive Politics, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Thomas More Law Center, and Citizens United Foundation all have challenged the regulations by state charity officials in California and New York in court.

During a hearing in May on a bill that would prohibit the Treasury Secretary from requiring that the identity of contributors to nonprofits be included in annual returns (H.R. 5053), Becerra warned that the legislation could create a loophole for foreign governments or others to use their money to influence government without disclosure. He also sponsored legislation in the past aimed at foundations to improve board diversity.

As a member of Congress, Becerra has been engaged and had a strong relationship with philanthropy and charities in his own district, according to Hadar Susskind, senior vice president for the Council on Foundations (CoF).

Becerra has raised questions at times that have not been easy to answer, around diversity and priorities in giving, according to Susskind. “He’s done so in a way where he’s trying to produce the best outcomes for his constituencies,” he said.

Had Becerra stayed in Congress, he would have had a chance to become ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he could have played a key role in tax reform and tax policy. Just two days before his appointment by Brown, Becerra had formally launched a campaign to succeed Sander Levin (D-Mich.) as ranking member.

Becerra once “referred to the charitable deduction as an ‘earmark,’ sending a thrill of alarm up the spines of philanthropic elites everywhere,” quipped William Schambra, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “It will be interesting to see what he does as the state official with the power to follow out that philosophy, in a state full of plump philanthropies.

“If he’s interested in an investigative project, I would suggest he take a look at the largest community foundation in California, which is now defining ‘community’ as the world, or as whatever the donor wants it to be,” he said. “The rest of our political and social institutions are now discovering that dangers of globalism at the expense of local community, so maybe it’s time for philanthropy to consider the cost as well, and Becerra could do the nation a service just be raising the question.”

Some observers suggested Becerra took the AG’s post as progressive states appear poised to lead the fight against the Trump administration. It’s a model that Republicans just employed against Obama, with state attorneys general suing the federal administration over certain policies. “Becerra will be at the front of the line. He’ll be an important voice and leader in fighting things in the Trump administration,” one person said.