A Republican candidate for House of Delegates used a Randolph County church’s copy machine to print out political mailers, according to the church’s minister and campaign finance reports.
Charles Kinnison, a GOP candidate running for one of two seats in the House 43rd District, listed the copying cost as an “in-kind” contribution from the Elkins Church of God Family Worship Center.
Federal tax law prohibits churches from “directly or indirectly” taking part in “any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for elective public office.” The ban applies to monetary, as well as “in-kind” contributions, according to officials at the Secretary of State’s Office.
“Obviously, that’s against the law,” said Delegate Bill Hartman, D-Randolph, who represents the district and is running for re-election. “That’s something [Kinnison] will have to justify.”
The church’s pastor, Jamie Estep, defended Kinnison.
“There’s been no laws broken, I can tell you that,” Estep said.
Kinnison, a church elder, printed the campaign letters on Feb. 10 and valued the use of the church copier at $240, according to his campaign finance report.
Estep said Kinnison recently disclosed he had used the church copy machine to print campaign materials. Kinnison did not discuss the specific contents of the mailer or how many copies were printed, Estep said. The campaign letter apparently was distributed to Republican voters during the primary.
“He told me the other day, me and him were talking, and I asked him how’s your campaign going,” Estep recalled. “He told me he had to list the church [on his campaign finance report] because of using the copier. He used our copier, but he supplied his own paper and all of that.”
Kinnison could not be reached for comment last week. He left a voicemail message for a Gazette-Mail reporter, but he did not return subsequent phone calls and emails, after the newspaper contacted Estep.
Churches and other tax-exempt community groups can lease space or rent rooms for campaign events. Churches also may take part in voter education programs, such as “get-out-the-vote” drives.
But churches can’t take sides in political races. Doing so could jeopardize a church’s tax-exempt status, and violators could face excise taxes, according to Internal Revenue Service regulations.
“There’s supposed to be a separation between church and state,” said Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, who’s seeking re-election in the 43rd District. “Did all the church members agree it was OK to print the political mailer for him? Are they OK with that in-kind contribution going to political purposes?”
Estep said Kinnison didn’t use any church supplies — paper, envelopes, stamps — for the political mailers, and “no money exchanged hands.” Kinnison’s campaign finance reports show he purchased copy paper on Feb. 13, “supplies to print letters” on Feb. 15, and mailing labels and stamps the following week.
“I know for certain we never wrote him a check,” Estep said. “I know for certain we’ve never given him a donation. I know for certain of all that.”
In 2011 and 2012, Kinnison was a paid church employee, serving as evangelical coordinator, according to his online resume.
Estep said he’s supporting Kinnison in the election, but he doesn’t tell church members how to vote while preaching on Sundays.
“I’m endorsing him personally, but I’ve never stood at the pulpit and endorsed anyone in 18 years of ministry,” Estep said. “I’m endorsing him big-time. As a person, there’s no finer.”
IRS regulations permit church leaders to support candidates publicly, so long as they don’t do so in church publications or at church functions.
Kinnison and fellow Republican Mary Catherine Boltz face incumbents Hartman and Campbell in the November election. The 43rd House District covers most of Randolph County and all of Pocahontas County.
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.